In the buildup to this match Ralph Hasenhüttl had struck a philosophical tone, insisting Southampton would make the most of the sunshine’s glaze after such a gloomy run. The evidence here, after a sixth successive Premier League defeat, was that when it rains, it pours.
Wolves were second best until they were controversially given a route back into this contest, when Rúben Neves slotted in a penalty after Ryan Bertrand was penalised for handball, before Pedro Neto took matters into his own hands, curling home to earn a precious comeback victory and only a second win in 11 league games. “It is a huge moment for us,” Nuno Espírito Santo said. “I think it was a beautiful goal and a beautiful action. Pedro is so talented.”
Southampton looked on course to earn their first league points since swatting Liverpool aside here last month. Since then they have suffered humiliation at Old Trafford and the indignation of failing to find a way past nine-man Newcastle. Danny Ings’ exquisite opener ultimately finished as a footnote in a game that hinged on Graham Scott’s decision to award Wolves a penalty eight minutes into the second half. Nélson Semedo’s cross zoomed at Bertrand, just a couple of yards away, and the referee immediately pointed to the spot.
Bertrand had turned his back but the ball brushed both arms. The crestfallen left-back shook his head in disbelief and on the touchline Hasenhüttl was apoplectic.
“What can he do?” the Southampton manager roared and, despite seeking an explanation from the referee at full time, his frustration did not subside.
“He explained that the arm was stretched away from his body. The ball hit the arm and it stretched the arm. But if it’s the rule, I must accept it. I don’t know what Mr [Martin] Atkinson [the VAR] saw today but they don’t do a good job at the moment, it’s as simple as this. In this moment, it destroys the game.”
Hasenhüttl referenced the video assistant referee’s decision to allow Matty Cash off the hook here at the end of last month, when the Aston Villa defender escaped punishment for handball on the basis it scraped his thigh en route to his arm. “Against Aston Villa, it was a clearer handball in the box and we didn’t get a penalty,” the Southampton manager said. “It’s hard to understand what happens in the last two weeks against us but we have to accept it.”
Like Villa, Wolves went on to toast victory – though there was no doubting the legitimacy of Neto’s winner, nor the quality. He brought Jannik Vestergaard to a standstill and then shuffled past the Southampton defender, who was stuck in the mud at the byline, before sending a rasping strike into the far pocket of Alex McCarthy’s goal. A gold glow emitted from the away dugout and Nuno acknowledged the importance of victory over the side who knocked them out of the FA Cup on Thursday.
Nuno was heavily criticised after that game but this time, after restoring the six players he left out in midweek, he saw his team rally.
“I understand all the opinions and I respect them a lot, especially from our fans,” Nuno said. “I know they are at home but they are engaged with the team and aware of the situations. But they are not totally aware of everything that is happening. What we look at is the big picture, what we have to do so our players can again produce their best performances. When a player is on the edge of his minutes, fitness or there is a danger of any kind of injury, you have to make the right type of decision. This is our job.”
Things had looked so promising for Southampton, with Nathan Redmond forcing Rui Patrício into a fine left-hand save early on before Ings applied the finishing touch to a marvellous team move that encompassed eight players.
McCarthy nudged the ball to Jan Bednarek and, nine passes later, the ball crashed into the back of the Wolves net. Stuart Armstrong did superbly to skip away from Semedo before teeing up Ings to blast home a first-time volley. Hasenhüttl erupted on to the pitch in joy – and again later in anger.