The fact that the most noteworthy feature of this match was the referee may offer some clue as to its quality. Nigel Adkins and Chris Hughton both opted for safety last night, but unless their sides can show more poise and guile in the final third, safety may not be what they ultimately get. Two fortuitous goals from set-pieces, one from Rickie Lambert and one from Robert Snodgrass, were the only incidents of real note.
Mark Clattenburg could scarcely have picked a less eventful night for his comeback. It was a mottled, marbled game, one of those in which the ball collects plenty of air miles, characterised by high, aimless crosses and those raking clearances to the striker that are simultaneously so hopeful and so hopeless. In Anthony Pilkington and Snodgrass, both sides played inverted wingers, creating frequent traffic jams in midfield.
With the centre packed, there was a little more joy to be found on the flanks. Adam Lallana had the most spectacular chance of the half, homing in on Lambert's casual, floating diagonal ball and volleying it just over the bar from 20 yards out. That really would have been something special.
Meanwhile, the duel between sharpshooters Grant Holt and Lambert was taking shape. The pair played together at Rochdale seven years ago, when Lambert was a promising midfielder and Holt a rugged, roughly-hewn target man. In the intervening years, Lambert has certainly added more guile to his game, and loses the ball a little less.
It was Lambert who broke the deadlock after a tepid first half-hour. In fact, both first-half goals came from left-footed set-pieces, and both owed a good deal to fortune. First Lallana's free-kick ricocheted off Bradley Johnson and fell kindly for Lambert, who poked the ball in with the very end of his toe. Norwich howled indignantly, fancying they saw Lambert inadvertently handle the ball. Clattenburg was hardly going to mark his return to the front-line by ruling out a goal for the home side. Southampton led.
Just as Southampton sought to consolidate their advantage with a
15-minute break they lapsed for a fateful second and conceded. Snodgrass swung in a free-kick left-footed. It was poor, lacking power and elevation. As Jason Puncheon tried to clear it, the ball clipped off his heel and flew low into the net. Nigel Adkins' expression as he stalked down the tunnel could have frozen
Puncheon almost made amends shortly after the hour mark, squirming clear of Javier Garrido and firing in a low shot that Mark Bunn parried well. While Norwich retreated into their tight defensive lines as the match neared its conclusion, Southampton pressed for the winner that would lift them out of the bottom three. Puncheon had a shot blocked. Lambert chose to pass from 12 yards out when he had more time than he realised.
There was, you felt, time for one more clear opportunity to win the game. It fell to Wes Hoolahan, who ran on to a bouncing Bunn goal-kick and temporarily found himself through on goal. But he tried to turn Jose Fonte rather than go straight for goal, and the chance was lost.
Southampton (4-2-3-1): Gazzaniga; Clyne, Fonte, Yoshida, Shaw (Reeves 85); Cork, Schneiderlin; Puncheon (Rodriguez 88), Ramirez, Lallana; Lambert. Subs K Davis (g), Hooiveld,
S Davis, Mayuka, Do Prado. Booked Clyne.
Norwich (4-2-3-1): Bunn; Whittaker, R Bennett, Bassong, Garrido; Tettey, Johnson; Snodgrass (E Bennett 88), Hoolahan (Howson 90), Pilkington; Holt (Morison 81). Subs Rudd (g), Martin, Barnett, Jackson. Booked R Bennett.
Referee M Clattenburg (County Durham).