Southampton overcome Bournemouth -- and nerves -- for vital win
SOUTHAMPTON, England -- Mark Hughes, as he is not shy of saying, has never been relegated. He may have to wear at least some of Stoke's potential demotion, having been in charge there until January, but his next three games are about ensuring he doesn't have two in the same season on his record and conscience.
At full-time, after his Southampton side had repelled attack after Bournemouth attack to close out a 2-1 win, Hughes looked like he didn't know what to do with himself. He turned around and around and tried not to celebrate excessively as he shook hands with his opponents before going onto the pitch to embrace his players. This was a relieved man, not sure how to express it.
"Everybody understood the significance of the result," Hughes said, with the relief that greeted the final whistle still hanging in the air. "A draw wouldn't have been enough."
Quite right, but Dusan Tadic, scorer of both Saints goals, went further: "I think this is one of the most important wins in history, because we are fighting for our lives."
The dramatic flourish really wasn't out of place. This was Southampton's first league win under Hughes, but it have come just be in time: With three games remaining, the permutations of what could happen are many, but the most simple way of putting it is that Southampton, while still in the drop zone, have hope.
They took the lead after a Bournemouth corner was cleared and Mario Lemina, who played in last season's Champions League final for Juventus, perfectly timed and placed a through ball for Tadic. Most of the time, in such situations, a goal is inevitable but, where Southampton are concerned this season, nothing has been straightforward.
And so the crowd inside a full St Mary's paused, clenched fists, gritted teeth and, if of a particularly nervous constitution, even had time to look away... but Tadic passed the ball into the corner of the net and nervous tension burst from the stands.
"You're still going down," sang the away supporters who, with their team clear of trouble, had little tangible with which to amuse themselves other than schadenfreude.
A sort of grim optimism seemed to be the prevailing emotion for the remainder of the half, until injury-time was being announced. Then, after a disputed corner, Josh King found himself bafflingly unattended at the far post and hoofed a Bournemouth equaliser into the roof of the net; optimism disappeared, leaving only grimness.
The timing of the goal meant that, throughout the break, 30,000 people twitchily checked the Premier League table and scores elsewhere, while chewing the inside of their lip and not really enjoying their coffees and pies. But part of football's appeal is its randomness and even the most hopeless teams can occasionally pop up with moments of genuine quality.
And that's what happened shortly afterwards: After Bournemouth's Steve Cook took a heavy touch when controlling on his chest, Tadic made off with the ball and punted it into the corner -- half toe-punt, half measured swerving shot -- from the edge of the penalty area.
The Serbian international can be infuriating to watch, never mind to play with or manage. But moments like that, which happened to be the 100th goal of his club career, remind you of why they persist with him.
From there, came nerves, nerves, nerves. Southampton's defence didn't so much camp out 30 yards from their own goal as build an estate of comfortable semi-detached houses and take out a 40-year mortgage on them.
When Jermain Defoe was put through, Wesley Hoedt malaunched into a lunging tackle that would either make him look like Franco Baresi or result in a ruinous red card. Fortunately for Southampton, it was the former as he whipped the ball away like a circus performer taking an apple off someone's head with a sword. You could almost hear the sound of faces crunching in horror, then relaxing.
As Bournemouth kept lumping on pressure and tossing ball after ball into the area, a nearby Southampton fan said, to nobody in particular but just loud enough to be heard above the din: "No, no, no, no." If ever you want a summary of what a relegation scrap is like, that was it.
If Southampton do go down, it won't be Hughes' fault. Not really, anyway; the lion's share of the blame lies with Mauricio Pellegrino and the people who waited until the middle of March to sack him. Going further back, fingers can be pointed at those, who decided eighth place and a cup final appearance wasn't enough for Claude Puel to keep his job last summer.
With three games remaining, Southampton are one point behind Swansea, who they face a week on Tuesday. Two further ahead are Huddersfield, whose last three matches are away to Manchester City and Chelsea, then at home to Arsenal on the final day.
Saturday's win showed that nothing will be easy but, if Hughes' men can claim another win or two, they might manage to escape.
Nick Miller is a writer for ESPN FC, covering Premier League and European football. Follow him on Twitter @NickMiller79.