By Matt Rowson
This was the draw that Ray wanted. Probably the draw that most of us, with one or two noted exceptions, wanted. Another scrap with a Division Two side would have been too tedious to contemplate; a big gun would run the risk of a heavy defeat which, however much perspective is retained, could have impacted on League form. Cup defeats against Chelsea and Arsenal in recent seasons both immediately preceded a disappointing month without a League victory.
Instead, we have Southampton. A Division One side, yes, but in a bit of a mess by anyone's standards with one League win (courtesy of a dubious last minute penalty against Blackburn in August) and two victories over Northampton and Colchester in previous rounds of this competition to show for the season so far. An under pressure manager, subject of much controversy, a still-lengthy injury list boasting the spine of the first choice side (Matthias Svensson, Oakley, Beattie) and considerable boardroom unrest. "Giants" there for the killing, in other words. So why, even in the last sixteen of the competition, am I finding it hard to be that bothered about this one?
Admittedly, our chances would be greater still with a fit and convinced Danny Webber in the side, and from the point of view of Tuesday we could do with H being available also. But frankly, and respectful as one ought to be of the rare candour of Mr.Iain Williamson of Berkshire in voluntarily reviewing and admitting his error in booking the puffin eater last Tuesday at Gillingham, I'd rather Helguson missed this one than the trip to his favourite hunting ground, Bramall Lane, at the weekend which the rescinding of Tuesday's booking would instigate. Which speaks volumes in itself.
It's fair to say that the attitude to the game on Southampton's messageboards is even more indifferent, with a form crisis in the League accentuated by the side's failure to beat a poor West Brom side on Saturday cast into acute perspective by the forthcoming local derby with Portsmouth at the weekend. When you're in this sort of form (three wins in nineteen competitive games stretching back to last season) the prospect of getting anywhere in this competition must seem remote, even if they do prevail on Tuesday. With Rupert Lowe courting controversy (and apparently dividing the fanbase) and a ridiculously turbulent management history which saw Gordon Strachan resign out of the blue, Paul Sturrock arrive and then leave without unpacking, the grim spectre of Glenn Hoddle briefly suggest itself and then Steve Wigley be appointed despite his lack of formal qualification for the position, it's not unreasonable to suggest that the Saints have other priorities.
Antti Niemi's training injury at the end of last week was particularly ill-timed; the Finnish Player of the Year has "not been ruled out" for Tuesday's game, but one would imagine that any doubt's over his fitness will see him sit it out. With reserve keeper Paul Smith, who briefly coincided with Ray Lewington at Brentford, out with a thumb injury Ulsterman Alan Blayney, who looked nervous against West Brom, would then come in with teenager Mike Poke on the bench.
The strong defence that characterised the Saints' side last season is notable by its absence; Svensson's prolonged absence with a knee injury is certainly a factor, but those on the pitch have also been underperforming with current skipper Claus Lundekvam not the calming, controlled influence he once was. He's likely to be partnered in the centre by Anders Jakobsson, the thirty-seventh (or something) Swede to join the Saints in the last year or two who hasn't looked altogether comfortable in a struggling team. French-born Tunisian international Alaedine Yahia is probably next in line for a start.
Further injuries limit the Saints' options at full back with Jason Dodd (back) and Graeame Le Saux (knee) both out - Le Saux will be back in training this week, but not soon enough to feature. Right back is likely to be Darren Kenton, always an impressive opponent when at Norwich and finally getting a run in the Southampton side. Chris Baird, who was such a blessing on loan last season, hasn't made it off the substitutes' bench this term despite the injury crisis, which makes the two-year contract he signed in the summer look a little odd. Belgian Jelle Van Damme is likely to play on the left, another who is still to convince with a tendency to overplay in defensive positions and send crosses into unproductively random areas. Former Derby defender Danny Higginbotham is an alternative.
In midfield, Southampton have been without main man Matthew Oakley for over a year now; he's back in training, but nowhere near match fitness. There's also a doubt over Fabrice Fernandes, who escaped a jail sentence for a spectacular drink driving offence earlier in the year; he has been missing with a hamstring injury but could make a return on Tuesday.
Otherwise, the midfield looks like comprising Mikael Nilsson, Rory Delap, Paul Telfer and Anders Svensson. Nilsson arrived earlier in the season having impressed for Sweden during Euro 2004; he started out at right back but is now playing further up the right flank. Paul Telfer's questionable heritage is kinda hard to overlook, even if it's getting on for ten years since he left Kenilworth Road. Now thirty-three, he's been playing a holding role and providing some much needed leadership in recent weeks. Rory Delap hasn't been on great form, and contributed to the defensive chaos that preceded West Brom's second goal at the weekend, whilst in contrast recent performances from Anders Svensson have suggested that Wigley is succeeding where others have failed, in coaxing some sustained form from Svensson's undoubted ability.
Other midfield options include David Prutton, sent off against the Hornets at the City Ground a couple of years ago and also out of form; left winger Neil McCann, last season's boo-boy but beginning to look the part, and Frenchmen Yoanne Folly, a holding player, and teenage winger Leandre Griffit.
Up front is where the injuries appear to have hit hardest, but it's been an inability to create chances from an apparently sterile midfield that has been the heart of the Saints' problems. Beattie won't play, hoping to recover from a broken toe in time to face Portsmouth, but Kevin Phillips returned to the side from a calf strain at the weekend - we know all about his ability but he's only scored two in ten starts this season. Peter Crouch might also make an appearance having recovered from his knee injury; he's also struggled to overcome his Portsmouth connections since his return to the south coast. With Marians Pahars also out with an ankle injury, youngsters Dexter Blackstock and Leon Best have been thrust into the first team, the former now the Saints' leading scorer courtesy of a hat-trick against Colchester.
Reviewing the poor state of our opponents should blur the fact that we're still the underdogs here; Southampton have had a poor start, but the players available to them despite the length of their casualty list betrays the key distinction between the realms that we operate in. The draw at Highbury and failure to capitulate totally even when they've been struggling suggests that this is not a lame duck praying for a quick and painless death.
Nonetheless we do owe Southampton, for James Beattie's foul on Robbo in scoring the ultimately decisive winning goal two seasons ago if nothing else. And though I say I'm not that bothered - not bothered in the way that had me stomping around my living room listening to Rage Against the Machine at volumes that eventually detached the speaker from its mooring prior to the Chelsea game, for example, balanced perspective will be out of the window come Tuesday evening.
Bring it on.