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23:59 1th February 2011

Exeter City 1 Southampton 2

So on a damp squib of a night City succumb to a last minute defeat and go down 2-1 at the hands of lofty Southampton in front of a bumper 6370 crowd, including an impressive - albeit very quiet - 1000+ visitors. City lined up: Hamer; Jones, Taylor, Archibald-Henville, Duffy; Harley, Sercombe, Noble, Dunne; Nardiello, O'Flynn.
A departure from manager Tisdale's normally favoured 3-5-2 formation with City reverting to a more conventional 4-4-2, albeit with Harley playing between the midfield three and front two, showed City's attacking intent against an opponent many have tipped for the title, and after the opening exchanges in which both sides had a couple of sighters it was City who came closest to unlocking the opposition defence in the ninth minute. Jones played a slide rule pass inside the full back as Nardiello comfortably beat a clumsy offside trap, however as he loomed in on goal the keeper stayed big and blocked Nards' close range effort.
On the quarter hour the whole ground held its breath as N'Guessan and Barnard carved the City defence wide open to give N'Guessan a one on one with Hamer in the City goal. But after crashing his shot against the crossbar with Hamer beaten all ends up, the ball rebounded to Barnard who did exactly the same thing when all that was needed was a simple side foot into an empty net from eight yards out.
An attempted clearance fell to Harley who played a first time ball into the path of the scampering Sercombe a couple of minutes later, but Sercs' expertly delivered cross was cut out by N'Guessan as O'Flynn looked to pounce. Ten minutes after that it was Troy's turn to deliver a slide rule pass, this time to Jones who whipped in a low cross from the left that found its way to Duffy deep at the far post. He fired the ball back in where it was only half cleared to the lurking Noble on the edge of the box, but he screwed his shot horribly wide.
In the 40th minute though City finally made the breakthrough, and if truth be told slightly against the run of play too. Whatever. Spotting an opportunity Dunne split the defence with a perfectly weighted pass for Nardiello to chase. Whilst the Southampton defence waited for O'Flynn to be flagged offside, Nardiello charged forward with only Jose Fonte smart enough to see what was happening. As the keeper came steaming out, Nards dinked the ball past him and rather like a defender shepherding the ball out for a goal kick, Nards cleverly prevented Fonte getting to the ball and watched on in glee as the ball rolled over the line to make it 1-0 to City.
In the second half City looked to extend their lead in the tenth minute with Dunne and Nards exchanging slick passes inside the box before Dunne's cross was blocked at the near post for a corner as Nards shaped to shoot. The two were again involved five minutes later when Troy sent Dunne scurrying down the left before cutting back inside to cross low, but Nardiello's fine near post strike was scrambled round the post for a City corner.
Two minutes later the ball was back up the other end as Southampton mounted a counter attack, but despite Chamberlain working himself a good position on the edge of the box, his curling dipping drive towards the top corner skimmed the top of the angle of post and bar and flew into the Saints fans behind the goal. City had another chance in the 20th minute when Noble drove purposefully into the box before seeing his shot saved at the near post, then O'Flynn was denied the rebound as the keeper pounced on the loose ball in the nick of time.
The keeper then denied Sercombe beating away his fierce drive from the corner of the box before the ball was worked up to the City end where the inevitable equaliser arrived via a cross to the far post where Ricky Lambert was on hand to climb highest and butt a powerful header past Hamer to make it one apiece. With Saints' tails up Lambert almost added a second moments later, but Hamer was alert to the danger and punched the ball off his head on the edge of the box.
A couple of quickfire substitutions came around the half hour mark with first Stewart replacing Nardiello then Logan replacing Harley as City reverted to a 4-3-3 formation, then with ten minutes to go former City defender Danny Seaborne came off the bench for Saints.
But as the game looked to be heading for a draw, Southampton had one final trick up their sleeve thanks to a needlessly given away corner in the last minute of normal time. The ball was played deep to the far post where it was hooked back across goal to Lambert who bundled in his second header from about two yards out to seal the win for the visitors.
A win that was harsh on City, who worked very hard against a very hard and physical side. Too physical at times, although they're not called the Saints for nothing as it seemed impossible for them to commit any sort of infringement no matter how hard they tried. It almost reminded me of one of those kids' games you get when one of the opposition player's dad's the ref, but I guess the less said about that the better.
As for the players themselves, the lively and dangerous front line of Lambert and Barnard were largely snuffed out by Taylor and Troy. Duffy was, as ever, the masterly Duffy, and Billy Jones delivered a number of balls into the box that simply cried out to be capitalised on.
In the middle Noble just gets better with each passing game, and both Sercombe and Dunne in particular turned in much better performances than of late. O'Flynn continues to quietly impress up front, although with Southampton having a huge defensive line maybe the forwards might have had a bit more joy had Logan been involved earlier.
But, I think, the players can take heart from a decent performance against a genuinely quality opposition. We were unlucky not to earn at least one point from the game, and you can't help but feel that if they play like that for the rest of the season they'll gain more points than they drop. Which is no bad thing considering just how tight the table is, even this far into the season. As it stands we're just seven points off the play-offs, but also just five off a relegation spot.
However, I prefer to look up rather than over my shoulder, and remain convinced that that's the direction we're heading. We can go into Saturday's game against Huddersfield in good spirits, and should we get a decent result - a repeat of last season's would do very nicely thank you very much - then it'll set us up perfectly for Monday night's televised clash against Brentford in the JPT area final second leg.
Should we prevail then who knows what the prospect of a Wembley visit will do - certainly nothing harmful so hopefully we can look forward to the rest of February in optimistic mood. So lets get behind the lads on Saturday and see just how far we can go.
    Data provided by Press Association