Southampton emerge from relegation scrap at Swansea, who look doomed
SWANSEA, Wales -- There was a time when Southampton and Swansea were seen as model football clubs, ones who made sensible decisions and could cope with losing managers and key players, because there was a plan.
Those days are in the past now. Southampton's 1-0 victory in South Wales on Tuesday all but confirms their survival; three points clear of the drop zone and with a goal-difference advantage of nine, it will take a miracle on the final day for Swansea to overhaul them.
The only real glimmer of hope for the Swans is that they face the desperate and already relegated Stoke, while Southampton face Manchester City. Attention for them turns to Huddersfield; if David Wagner's side manage a point from their final two games, against Chelsea and Arsenal, then Swansea are done for.
In the end, the hero was a slightly unlikely figure. Manolo Gabbiadini had only one goal to his name since October, but after coming on as a Hail Mary substitute in the second half, he bundled home the goal that will almost certainly ensure Southampton will play in the Premier League next season.
Swansea are, in all likelihood, heading down, and without wishing to offer additional salt to a freshly opened wound, they don't deserve an awful lot more. They should probably have dropped last season, but for an improbable recovery, and for most of this season they have been desperate, save for the spell immediately after Carlos Carvalhal's appointment, when it looked like a second miracle might occur.
In that respect, this has been doubly cruel for their fans. They looked dead when Paul Clement departed in January, only to be offered a dollop of hope. Hope like that is clung to, football fans being eternal optimists and dreadful pessimists all at the same time. But now, they are left helpless, waiting for improbable favours from elsewhere.
The opening stages were as frantic as you might expect, two teams fully aware that victory would almost certainly see them safe, defeat would almost certainly relegate them, but a draw would simply stretch the agony out even further.
Initially Swansea were broadly the better side, shifting the ball out wide to cross at every opportunity, but that shouldn't be taken as a particular compliment. The game was beset by tension, but that wasn't the explanation for the poor standard of play. Nerves can explain and excuse plenty, but this was a game between two teams that deserve to be where they are in the table.
Half-chances were created but missed, Charlie Austin attracting the ire of manager Mark Hughes for a couple of meek efforts, Sam Clucas skimming a header wide for the hosts. Austin had the best effort of the first half, hammering a half-volley at goal that Lukasz Fabianski plucked from the air.
In some ways, it was cruel to make these two teams actually play football. It was a little like asking someone waiting for some important medical test results to read a tricky, intellectual novel. There's no way you'll be able to concentrate properly, so it's essentially a waste of time.
After the break, Swansea continued to exert the most pressure, and Jordan Ayew very nearly scored an incongruously good goal, looping a shot from way outside the area on the left that Alex McCarthy had to launch himself at in order to save.
Southampton seemed to be relying on counterattacks, and if that was the plan, it seemed a curious one. A good counterattacking team ideally needs a selection of rapid forwards to quickly shift the balance of play, but also a clinical nature to take as many of the inevitably few chances that will come their way. Only Nathan Redmond really fits the former description, and before this game, they had scored only 36 goals all season.
By the hour mark, the awareness that a draw wouldn't really be much use to anyone rapidly crept up on both managers, who threw on an extra striker each. Then Hughes doubled down, using an injury to centre-back Jan Bednarek to introduce yet another forward, Gabbiadini.
Gabbiadini essentially did nothing in his half-hour on the pitch, apart from score the goal that will all but keep Southampton in the Premier League. Just that, really. Nothing major. It was a scrappy strike, not that anyone will care a little bit.
One might question whether Southampton really deserve to stay up. They have been broadly awful this season, not necessarily unspeakably dreadful, but just featureless. You couldn't pin down their style, describe their play, pick out a notable player.
But they're here, surely, for another season. As for Swansea: The old line about relegation potentially being a good thing, allowing them to reset and start again is usually a nonsense, but at least this might free them from the cycle they have found themselves in.
If they stayed up, the chances are the pattern would repeat: A bad start to next season would lead to a managerial change in the autumn; another firefighter would come in; wash, rinse, repeat. Not that this will serve as much consolation, of course.
Nick Miller is a writer for ESPN FC, covering Premier League and European football. Follow him on Twitter @NickMiller79.