The result left the home side facing a grim future. The game was supposed to be the easy part of a testing run-in for Southampton. Tomorrow they are at Bolton, next Sunday at Portsmouth, then games against two fellow strugglers before bowing out with Manchester United. But defeat leaves them staring relegation full in the face.
Villa, meanwhile, are safe but not inspiring, floating in mid-table and waiting for this summer’s £20m cash injection. Last year the figure was closer to £2m, the amount wrought by the sale of Peter Crouch (a £5m signing three years earlier) and the beanpole striker returned to haunt his former employers on Saturday, teeing up potential Villa target Kevin Phillips for the opening goal before adding a second himself.
By half-time, Villa’s slim hopes of playing European football next season were looking decidedly anorexic. But football is, occasionally, a game of two halves and so it proved at St Mary’s as the introduction of Nolberto Solano, surprisingly at the expense of the side’s only fit centre-back, Martin Laursen, proved inspired.
The Peruvian midfield player immediately began to orchestrate things as Villa’s midfield began to take a grip on the game. By the 72nd minute Solano, had left his former Newcastle teammate Olivier Bernard in a trance, cushioning a diagonal ball from Lee Hendrie into Carlton Cole's path for the first goal, guided the second in at a corner and seen Steven Davis add a third.
So, the super substitute overturned a two-goal deficit and left his side just two points off seventh and, with Manchester United and Arsenal through to the FA Cup final, a UEFA Cup spot. But, at the end of the day, David O’Leary will be conscious that his side had luck on their side, while a defence consisting of three full-backs and Gareth Barry might well struggle against (better) opposition.