Albion 1 Southampton 2.
PLENTY of Albion fans will disagree but I am hoping Southampton go up and Crystal Palace stay up.
Two great rivalries would add spice to the Seagulls’ return to the Championship next season.
We all know about Palace but there has been thinly disguised conflict simmering all season between players, supporters and yes, the managers, as Albion have outstripped their South Coast rivals in the race for promotion.
Nigel Adkins endured a predictably hostile reception from the Withdean faithful following his unwise reference earlier in the campaign about keeping up with his side.
Poyet’s withering response to the manner in which Saints snatched away the 24-match unbeaten home league sequence of his convincing title winners suggests there would be more fun and games if the pair lock horns again at the higher level.
It is all good knockabout stuff and three home derbies next season (including Portsmouth), or even four (if Bournemouth are promoted via the play-offs) will only enhance all the excitement surrounding the move to The Amex.
Saturday’s contest in the Withdean heat was a big game too far for Poyet’s troops. Their effort and commitment could not be faulted but after that magnificent eight-match winning streak in March and ten more points out of 12 in the first half of April to clinch promotion and the title, the quality we have come to expect was missing.
Poyet conceded: “We didn’t play well. We didn’t pass the ball, apart from one or two players, as we know we can.
“Maybe that was because of the opposition or we were having a bad day. That’s football, we accept it. The opposition can be stronger than you and they were stronger than us.”
Cue a clash of cultures. Poyet was miffed by Southampton’s refusal to observe before the kick-off the ‘guard of honour’ ritual, which is customary on the continent for opponents of champions.
“I’m not the one who understands English football,” he said in a manner which once more emphasised he certainly understands sarcasm!
Poyet and Adkins may have been colleagues on the Pro Licence coaching course but they have contrasting ideas about the way the game should be played.
Not quite as widely contrasting though as Poyet’s slightly ungracious remarks in defeat would indicate.Comparing Southampton to Dagenham and Redbridge, with the exception of Rickie Lambert, was a touch harsh, although in fairness the point he was making was more about tactics.
There was no shortage of praise for some of the players Adkins has at his disposal. Poyet said: “We set up to play our game (passing). It was difficult, that is why Southampton are in the position they are.
“They have got great individuals. They try to play their own game, one-to-one, play an individual game. It worked for them, because they are stronger, bigger and that is why they have got five players in the (PFA) team of the year.”
We should not forget either that Albion can play the long game when they want to, making use of Glenn Murray’s prodigious leaps. Murray’s departure with an injured left shoulder, sustained when keeper Kelvin Davis clearly got the ball as he dived at his feet, was one of the second-half turning points in a defensive rather than attacking sense.
Albion use Murray’s aerial power to combat set pieces. He is given a free role to head away the kind of danger exploited by Jose Fonte for Southampton’s late winner.
Another turning point was the half-time introduction by Adkins of the talented Adam Lallana. His craft and invention in behind the strikers gave the visitors a dimension they lacked in an uneventful first half in which they had plenty of possession but nobody hurting Poyet’s dependable defensive unit.
Albion grabbed a flattering lead on the stroke of half-time, thanks to the kind of individual error they have kept to a minimum themselves at the back throughout the campaign.
Former Birmingham centre-half Radhi Jaidi left his backpass from Murray’s flick-on short. The anticipating Ashley Barnes demonstrated a poacher’s instinct to beat Davis to the ball and slot his 17th goal of an encouraging first full season in Albion colours.
Poyet said: “He has been outstanding and he is always willing to score more and participate more. He was even moaning at half-time because he didn’t touch the ball a lot, even though he had scored and we were 1-0 up because of him.
“That’s his mentality. He is young and there is plenty to come from him. We are going to try to make sure he keeps doing what he is doing. Somehow he scores. He comes up with something special or gets a present from a defender.”
Albion tried their upmost to hold on without Murray and the flagging Barnes, who was substituted. Casper Ankergren made a wonder save from Guly Do Prado and also appeared to get a glove on a header against a post from the influential Lambert.
The Southampton centre- forward also shot wide when well-placed while Liam Bridcutt, one of the few Albion players to perform anything like to form, managed to block a goalbound drive by Lallana.
The Seagulls’ resistance was finally broken five minutes from time. Danny Butterfield crossed deep, Lambert nodded down and sub David Connolly turned to convert from close range.
Their proud unbeaten home record fell on the stroke of full-time as David punted a free-kick into the right-hand side of the box for the unchallenged Fonte to loop an angled header over Ankergren.
Although it arrived very late, Southampton deserved their victory and credit for perseverance in a high-pressure situation following the win by promotion rivals Huddersfield at MK Dons the previous day.
Barnes admitted: “It was good to get on the scoresheet and get my 17th goal but it’s a team game and we weren’t good enough. Everyone feels hurt but it doesn’t matter now, we’re champions and they have got to fight for second spot.
“It’s hard to take, because we have done so well here, but we are going into a new stadium and everyone can look forward to that.”
Indeed they can and, hopefully, visits from Southampton and Palace.
Albion (4-1-2-1-2): Ankergren; Calderon, Elphick, El-Abd, Painter; Bridcutt; Sparrow (Sandaza 85), Dicker; Bennett; Murray (Wood 51), Barnes (Noone 69).
Subs not used: Brezovan, Navarro, Kishishev, Dunk.
Goal: Barnes (45).
Red cards: None.
Yellow card: El-Abd (88) foul.
Southampton (4-3-1-2): Davis; Butterfield, Fonte, Jaidi, Dickson (Seaborne 90); Chaplow, Hammond, Gobern (Connolly 76); Do Prado; Lambert, Forte (Lallana 46).
Subs not used: Richardson, Bialkowski, N'Guessan, Stephens.
Goals: Connolly (85), Fonte (89).
Red cards: None.
Yellow cards: Chaplow (80) foul, Fonte (89) over-celebrating.