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Southampton’s Manolo Gabbiadini grabs the limelight but is denied final glory

Southampton's Manolo Gabbiadini celebrates scoring their second goal

Manolo Gabbiadini probably does not know too much about the late Bobby Stokes, who became one of Southampton’s greatest heroes after scoring against Manchester United in a Wembley showpiece.

That was in the FA Cup final of 1976, when Stokes conjured the only goal of the game to secure the club’s first piece of major silverware.

Gabbiadini did everything within his power to update those old images; to reacquaint the club with that glorious feeling and his performance was the outstanding facet of a gripping EFL Cup final. The January signing from Napoli scored twice to haul his team back from 2-0 down and the arguments would rage long into the night as to why he had another one chalked off, wrongly, for offside in the 11th minute.

When he was substituted after 83 minutes, the 32,000 Saints fans afforded him a spine-tingling ovation. At that point, they were set fair to land what would have been the second major trophy of their 131-year history. Then, reality intervened and it kicked Gabbiadini and Southampton hard.

They had not deserved to lose on the basis that it was they who had made the game. It was Claude Puel’s players who boasted the greater spirit of adventure, who created the most chances and, in short, looked the more cohesive team. But they were on the wrong side of the finest of margins, as evidenced when Oriol Romeu’s header came back off the woodwork and, in the end, they were undermined by lapses at the back.

In what was only Southampton’s sixth major final, Gabbiadini provided a moment that threatened to rival that of Stokes when he equalised with a swivel inside a crowded penalty area and a whip of his cultured left foot that sent the ball flying into the bottom corner.

His first goal had come from the deftest of close-range touches and when Gabbiadini reflects on what he has achieved already at Southampton, he will see the headline statistic of five goals in three appearances. Having scored on his debut against West Ham United, he got two more at Sunderland last weekend. But Gabbiadini has brought more than that. He has captured the imagination.

His equaliser here brought about raucous scenes, with the Southampton end waving red-and-white scarves above their heads almost as one. But it was difficult to consider Gabbiadini’s display without dwelling on the moment that could have seen the final take a different course. The early offside left a bitter taste because it was plainly the wrong decision.

Yes, Ryan Bertrand had been in an offside position when Gabbiadini tapped home from Cédric Soares’s cross but he was beyond his team-mate when he scored and, as such, was not interfering with the play.

Southampton’s spirit was unquenchable. There have been times under Puel when they have left onlookers a little lukewarm with their football. This was not one of them, and the roar from their support that greeted the half-time whistle told its own story.

Moments earlier, Gabbiadini had fashioned their lifeline. Nobody in Saints’ colours had wanted to give up on the dream and thanks to Gabbiadini, they had renewed hope. There was plenty of discussion during the 25-year-old’s Serie A career as to whether he could play as a lone striker but there has never been any argument about the quality of his movement.

It was sharp and intelligent from the first whistle and, when he tiptoed in to meet James Ward-Prowse’s low cross into the centre, there was an inevitability about the finish. He could be forgiven for glancing across at the assistant referee before he began his celebrations.

Puel had stuck with his 4-2-3-1 formation, which gave Dusan Tadic the No10 role, and he provided good support for the centre-forward. As an aside, this was the first time that Puel had named an unchanged starting XI since his arrival at the club last summer. With Gabbiadini at the top of the formation, the pieces behind him appear to have fallen into place. Ward-Prowse adapted to a midfield role off the right while Nathan Redmond was outstanding on the left.

Southampton’s afternoon was undercut by wobbles at the back. There has been disquiet behind the scenes at some of the goals Fraser Forster has let in this season and there could be legitimate questions as to why he failed to get across in time to repel Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s free-kick. Never mind the porous look of the defensive wall, Forster’s reaction time had to be quicker.

United’s second was an even poorer one for Southampton to concede and the distance between the centre-halves, Jack Stephens and Maya Yoshida, yawned like a chasm. Yoshida was also nowhere near close enough to Jesse Lingard, who picked out the corner.

When a striker mines a patch of deep purple such as that of Gabbiadini, his team can not be written off. His second goal which followed a poorly cleared corner was a beauty and there were other moments as Southampton pressed hard for the win that showcased his touch and awareness. But when Puel’s defence switched off for the third time, allowing Ibrahimovic to profit, it added up only to heartbreak.

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by David Hytner at Wembley, for The Guardian on Sunday 26th February 2017 20.30 Europe/London

guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010


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