On the 2nd of January 2016, Southampton travelled 200 odd miles across the country for their match against newly-promoted Norwich City. At this point of the season, Southampton had currently won only one match from seven, including a draw against Aston Villa and a loss to Stoke City, both of which coming at home. Saints looked strong favourites for the clash against the Canaries despite their current barren run, but Norwich were coming into this game off the back of a historic victory away to Man United. The contrast of confidence in both squads showed as Norwich edged the match 1-0 with an Alexander Tettey goal, three minutes after Victor Wanyama received his second red card of the season. After the loss, Saints slumped down to 13th in the table, placing them only seven points off the relegation zone. However, from this point on in the season, Ronald Koeman’s men turned their season around.
This fine form coincided with the return of Fraser Forster, who achieved six clean sheets in a row on the Saints’ march up the league table, alongside Shane Long’s inspired goal scoring form. Southampton picked up memorable victories at Old Trafford and achieved the comeback of all comebacks at home to Liverpool – it still gives me the chills just thinking of Sadio Mane’s second goal!
From that loss against Norwich, Saints only lost three games in the remaining 18 fixtures, winning the last four. In the last four weeks of the season, Saints had fixtures against Manchester City and Tottenham Hotspurs left to play. At this point, Saints had managed to salvage their season and were in the thick of the fight for a spot in Europe next season. A Sadio Mane hat trick sealed all three points against Manchester City in a 4-2 home victory. Then a Steven Davis double a week later against Spurs saw Saints take three points from White Hart Lane for the first time in 12 years. This meant that going into the final game of the season against Crystal Palace, Saints had to better West Ham’s result against Stoke and hope that Manchester United lose at home to Bournemouth.
As it turned out, Southampton came out 4-1 winners against former manager Alan Pardew and his Palace side, and to make things even better, West Ham threw away a 1-0 lead to lose 2-1 at Stoke. This guaranteed a place in the Europa League qualifying round for the boys in red and white. From here, the match at Old Trafford was abandoned due to a bomb scare and when the match was replayed two days later, Manchester United won the match 3-1. The end result? Southampton had finished their season in 6th place on 63 points – their highest ever Premier League finish and points total. A week later, the FA Cup final saw the Red Devils seal a 2-1 win in extra time over Crystal Palace to lift the historic trophy. As a result, Southampton were entered straight into the group stages.
On the 26th of August, the eagerly anticipated draw was finally going to take place, and Southampton were amongst some of Europe’s top clubs. Southampton were placed into pot three, so a difficult draw was potentially on the cards. As the draw was being made, all Southampton fans were glued to their screens. The draw was dragged out and Saints fans had endured 10 groups being drawn, A to J without seeing our name. As group K was being drawn, we were all hoping our name will be plucked from a ball. First in the group – Inter Milan. Second team into the group – Sparta Prague. The third team – Southampton Football Club. Finally, we saw our lads placed into the Europa League group stages, with the fourth team to join group K being Hapoel Be’er Sheva.
But, who exactly are the teams that we will face (no matter how big or small) and who should we look out for?