SOUTHAMPTON — It felt like a fairytale.
Beating Inter Milan under the floodlights on a Thursday night. European competition. St Mary’s full to the brim and buzzing.
It didn’t feel real.
[ MORE: Saints beat Inter ]
By now we’ve all heard about Southampton’s dramatic rise from England’s third-tier to the upper echelons of the Premier League in the last six years. From the brink of extinction in 2009 to beating the three-time European champions Inter in 2016.
Again, for anyone from Southampton and anyone who has supported this club, it didn’t feel real to beat Inter 2-1.
Six years ago Saints finished seventh in England’s third-tier and won the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy while Inter won the treble as they were crowned champions of Europe under Jose Mourinho.
This campaign marks Southampton’s first-ever season of group stage action in the Europa League after their highest-ever finish of sixth place in the Premier League last season.
This win against Inter also marked the next step in Southampton’s remarkable journey.
Instead of a token marquee win against illustrious opponents who have fallen on tough times, it seemed like yet another landmark moment in the clubs accession.
There’s been a buzz of positivity for many years and with talk of potential Chinese investment in the club in the build up to kick off, Saints dominated the game and showed maturity with an under-strength team to gut out a win and show they deserve to be in Europe.
The City of Southampton has truly embraced the Europa League, Europe’s second-tier club competition, while many other Premier League teams have scoffed at it in the past.
[ MORE: Europa League standings ]
St Mary’s was buzzing before kick off as over 30,000 home fans packed in for one of the biggest games in club history. Red and white flags were handed out to every home fan and as Prokofiev’s “Dance of the Knights” blasted out over the sound system, Saints had met their date with destiny. This was it.
For the first hour, it wasn’t going their way.
Inter took the lead against the run of play through Mauro Icardi and then Dusan Tadic‘s penalty kick was saved right on half time as Claude Puel‘s much-changed side trailed 1-0. The atmosphere was subdued. After all the club had been through to get to this stage, there was an air of expectancy. A defeat at home to Inter could’ve meant the end of the European adventure not just for this season, but probably for the next decade given the upturn in many perennial Premier League powerhouses this season which will make qualifying for Europe tougher.
It was time to act. Saints’ fans and players rose as one.
In the second half the noise levels from St Mary’s were cranked up a few notches. And it worked. After their narrow defeat against the run of play at the San Siro two weeks ago in front of nearly 8,000 traveling fans, Saints’ players knew they needed to deliver a famous win.
Spurred on by their fans, they did just that. Two goals in four minutes and 32 seconds from Virgil Van Dijk and a Yuto Nagatomo own goal turned the table. St Mary’s was rocking. The fans had helped turned Saints’ day of reckoning into a famous victory.
ProSoccerTalk asked Saints’ manager Puel, who celebrated what turned out to be the game-winner like a madman, just how important the fans had been in the second half.
“It was important to win tonight for the fans. They came for the first game against Inter, 8,000 supporters. It was fantastic. It was important to give them this game because all of their support is very, very important. The atmosphere in this game was fantastic and it permitted my players in the second half to give all the possibilities to come back in this game,” Puel told ProSoccerTalk. “Of course the scenario is also very interesting because tonight, at the beginning of the game, it was against us and we kept a good character and we insist with our play and we continued with this good work. We have been rewarded. This is fantastic for my players and for the fans.”
It is also fantastic for Southampton’s chances of advancing to the knockout stages of the Europa League.
They now sit second in Group K, two points behind their next opponents, Sparta Prague. Puel knows how difficult that challenge will be but he is embracing it.
This journey isn’t over. It’s only just begun. The battle to make the Round of 32 and continue this run into 2017 is on.
“The next game will be very difficult of course because it is a good team, Sparta. We know it was important to win tonight. It was important for this result,” Puel said. “It was a good result but it is not finished of course. We want to know the qualification of this competition. It was a fantastic game for my players tonight but the work is not finished.”
Southampton’s European journey, and their incredible rise, is far from over.
It was a proud night for Sotonians across the world. The magnitude of this win is behind the 1976 FA Cup final victory, to date their only major trophy, but apart from that, few victories match this in terms of stature. This famous win didn’t only yield memorable moments. It allowed Saints’ fans to continue to dream of heading to Stockholm, Sweden, on May 24, 2017.
That’s of course where and when the Europa League final takes place. After the journey they’ve been on in recent years, why stop dreaming at this point?
For fans of Southampton, the fairytale is very real.