SOUTHAMPTON — Claude Puel finally has his first win as Southampton’s manager at the fifth attempt as his side beat Sparta Prague 3-0 at St Mary’s Stadium on Thursday in their Europa League Group K opener.
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Charlie Austin scored twice in the first half, his first goals since his debut at Manchester United on Jan. 23, to set Saints on their way in their first-ever game in the Europa League group stage.
Puel made seven changes to the side which lost at Arsenal last weekend but Saints looked composed and dominated from start to finish despite a few breaks from Sparta in the second half which they dealt with easily. Late on substitute Jay Rodriguez slotted home to put some extra gloss on the scoreline as Saints went top of their group.
Next up in the Europa League for Southampton is a trip to face Israeli champions Hapoel Be’er Sheva — who beat Inter Milan 2-0 in their Group K opener — on Sept. 29.
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Southampton got off to the perfect start as Austin was played in down the right and his cross was cleared by Costa for a corner but after appearing to talk with the fifth official behind the goal, a penalty kick was awarded for handball by the Prague defender.
Austin and Dusan Tadic, Southampton’s regular penalty kick taker, then tussled over the ball briefly in a rather uncomfortable moment but Austin won the battle and then slammed the penalty home. 1-0 to Southampton.
Saints were buoyed by that early goal as Austin — making his debut in European play — again raced into the box and his pull back was cleared for a corner and from that set piece Virgil Van Dijk somehow headed over from six-yards out.
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Sparta Prague threatened on the break on a few occasions but that was mainly due to Southampton mistakes and in the 25th minute the home side thought they’d gone 2-0 up but Austin’s diving header from Cuco Martina‘s superb cross was from an offside position. Not to worry. Moments later it was 2-0 and the same duo combined with Martina prodding a cross to the back post and Austin heading home across the goal. 2-0.
Shane Long almost got on the end of another teasing ball forward from Martina but the Republic of Ireland international couldn’t quite get a touch on it with the goalkeeper rushing out.
In the second half Tadic had a shot from distance which was easily saved and Sparta began to look more dangerous as they forced the issue and veteran striker David Lafata came on. Saints coped well with plenty of set pieces swung into their box but Lafata came close after a mistake from Matt Targett allowed Sparta to pour forward and Fraster Forster denied Lafata’s effort from distance.
Saints eased to victory in the end with Rodriguez jumping off the bench and slotting home a swift counter attack, and for most of the second half the PL club had one eye on Sunday’s game against Swansea City (Watch live, 9:15 a.m. ET online via NBC Sports) as Puel is off and running and so is Southampton’s European adventure.