Southampton clinched a crucial win in south Wales to effectively seal their spot in next season’s Premier League.
The victory, snatched 18 minutes from time through Manolo Gabbiadini’s scruffy finish, means the Saints simply need to avoid a heavy loss to Manchester City on the final day and an impressive escape under Mark Hughes is complete.
For Swansea, though, bitter disappointment on the winner takes all stage jeopardizes their chances of survival. It leaves them desperate for three points against already-relegated Stoke, as well as hoping Southampton suffer that aforementioned heavy defeat.
In a match fueled by tension, the sinister risk of losing—with ramifications the Swans are now brutally aware of—ensured tangible opportunities came few and far between. It further underlined the nervous aura inside a Liberty Stadium that hasn’t hosted such a significant game since the Welsh club reached the top flight via the playoffs seven years ago.
That jubilant day must seem an all too distant memory for Swansea fans, some of whom couldn’t curb their emotions here, and the cruel reality of relegation was the dark cloud looming over the venue at the full time whistle.
Gabbiadini the difference
Mark Hughes’ decision to replace injured defender Jan Bednarek with striker Manolo Gabbiadini proved pivotal to Southampton’s triumph.
Shane Long (who had come on four minutes earlier) and Charlie Austin already formed the nucleus of an attack-orientated Saints side and Gabbiadini’s entrance placed Swansea under more pressure they couldn’t handle.
Austin’s previous chances were all put straight at Lukasz Fabianski whose excellent positioning allowed him to make vital saves from the former QPR striker.
But when Austin’s acrobatic volley was fumbled by the Polish stopper, Gabbiadini—without a goal since February—pounced on an opportunity too important to pass up and a ricocheting strike found the corner. It sent the traveling fans into euphoria uncharacteristic of their problematic campaign.
Mark Hughes’ unusually vehement celebrations in front of those delirious Southampton supporters indicated his satisfaction for a battling, valiant display.
Having sacrificed leads against Arsenal, Chelsea and most recently Everton in agonising fashion, perhaps the Saints’ most commendable achievement was holding onto the slender advantage until the end to climb further from the wicked clutches of the relegation zone.
From ruthless to toothless
An almost unfathomable start to life in south Wales for manager Carlos Carvalhal earned the eccentric boss a wealth of plaudits. His venture to catapult Swansea away from the bottom three, propelled by incredible wins over Arsenal and Liverpool, knew no bounds and an 8-1 crushing of League 2 side Notts County meant the sweet footnote of an FA Cup run amplified his magnificent achievements.
However, original qualms of his appointment have recently been justified, with the Swans amid a dreadful run of form at the most decisive time.
Failing to win since the beginning of March, and scoring just twice since a 4-1 annihilation of West Ham two months ago represent severe cracks upon the surface of Swansea, escalated with what could be a potential top flight-ending defeat on Tuesday evening.
Gone are the jovial analogies Carvalhal used in his interviews, previously a harmonious soundtrack to superb performances on the pitch. Instead, the recent warm weather contrasts from the bleak, harsh conditions set to send Swansea down to the Championship.
Ever-poignant pictures of children crying in the stands and nail-biting tension filled Liberty Stadium when Southampton broke the deadlock, and though the fans played their part in spurring the Swans on it proved insufficient as they crashed to a fourth successive, toxic, Premier League defeat.
Swansea struggled to create any chances of note as a direct approach seldom penetrated an organized Southampton rearguard. Jordan Ayew’s sumptuous long range effort, tipped over by Alex McCarthy, was as close as the hosts came to stealing the spoils.
No longer in their hands as it was a couple of months ago, Swansea have to hope Manchester City are very eager to extend their new record for the most goals scored in the Premier League.
West Brom relegated
The result plunged Swansea closer to demotion and officially ended the Baggies’ eight-year stay in the top tier.
An awe-inspiring resurgence under Darren Moore—the first man to win Manager of the Month and witness relegation in the same night—gave West Brom a minuscule glimmer of hope.
But such was the predicament Alan Pardew left them in; even their sparkling run of form hasn’t been enough to keep them afloat.
A draw between Swansea and Southampton would have kept the tiny flicker alive, however Championship football is heading to the Hawthorns regardless of what happens on the final day.
They join Stoke, who had their relegation confirmed at the weekend. Swansea can only pray they don’t become the final club to succumb to the trapdoor.