The final batch of EFL Championship fixtures of 2023 got underway at St. Mary’s on Friday evening. Promotion-chasing Southampton dismantled manager Russell Martin’s former side Swansea City on Boxing Day, while manager-less Plymouth Argyle arrived on the South Coast having rescued a point against playoff contenders Cardiff City that same afternoon.
SOU: Bazunu; Walker-Peters, Harwood-Bellis, Bednarek, Manning; Alcaraz, Smallbone, Charles; Edozie, Adams; A. Armstrong
PLY: Hazard; Edwards, Pleguezuelo, Gibson, Galloway; Randell, Houghton, Azaz; Mumba, Whittaker, Waine
On a night which could see the Saints jump to within two points of second-placed Ipswich Town if results went their way, Ryan Manning’s sublime ball through to Che Adams saw the Scottish international fire home from close range. However, the celebrations were brought to a quick halt as Adams was caught offside. Adam Armstrong then saw Conor Hazard off his line and attempted an audacious lob from a long way out, but the striker’s effort dipped just over the bar.
Carlos Alcaraz then dispossessed Joe Edwards just outside the Argyle box and sent a drilled effort just wide of the far post with eleven minutes on the clock. Taylor Harwood-Bellis was also unlucky to see his header from a corner bounce back off the inside of the post minutes later.
Southampton’s best chance of the game thus far saw a wonderful ball from Jan Bednarek played through to Sam Edozie on the left hand side, who sent a teasing ball in towards Che Adams at the far post. Had the Scottish international steered the ball home, it would have not stood as the linesman’s flag was up once again.
Plymouth had been defensively resolute throughout the first half, and with three minutes to go before half-time, the Pilgrims went on the counter through Finn Azaz. The midfielder then exchanged passes with Ben Waine, who then played the ball out towards Morgan Whittaker who was in on goal, but Sam Edozie got back well to clear the ball.
Pilgrims goalkeeper Conor Hazard was called into action seven minutes into the second half when he kept out a brilliant close-range effort from Carlos Alcaraz with an even better save after the Argentinian midfielder was played through by Will Smallbone.
Plymouth thought they had a surprise lead when Morgan Whittaker’s pinpoint cross found Bali Mumba at the far post who headed home. However, the winger was ruled offside; albeit controversially.
Argyle’s anger would’ve only increased as up the other end thirty seconds later, the Saints took a lead that their dominance warranted. Sam Edozie, who had looked bright all game, found Carlos Alcaraz in the central area. The Argentine then wasted no time in getting his shot away as he fired a terrific effort into the top corner to give Southampton yet another lead.Embed from Getty Images
Will Smallbone was unlucky not to make it two for the Saints a moment later, as he latched onto Jan Bednarek’s ball forward, but the midfielder somehow headed his effort just wide of the far post.
However, as the game reached the 63rd minute, Russell Martin’s side doubled their lead, as Taylor Harwood-Bellis’ ball over the top found Che Adams through on goal. The Scottish forward then made no mistake and calmly steered the ball past Conor Hazard to give Southampton an extremely healthy advantage.
Joe Aribo was introduced by Russell Martin in place of goalscorer Carlos Alcaraz in the 68th minute and almost made an instant impact as his long-range strike was unlucky not to find the far corner. Adam Armstrong also forced an excellent save out of Conor Hazard minutes after.
As the game entered second half stoppage time, Gavin Bazunu was dispossessed by Pilgrims substitute Ryan Hardie in the Saints box and the striker steered the ball home into an empty net to make the closing stages of this contest quite nervy for the Saints. But Russell Martin’s side held out to go a staggering seventeen games without defeat; and leave their visitors still looking for their first away win of the season.
Both sides are next in action on New Year’s Day, with Southampton travelling east to Carrow Road where Norwich City are their hosts, and Plymouth Argyle welcome Valerian Ismael’s Watford to Home Park – both games kick off at 3pm.