THE script was written for former Rovers hero Billy Sharp to score against his old club – and the striker didn’t disappoint.
Sharp’s clinical brace condemned Rovers to a third successive defeat as the Saints extended their impressive recent unbeaten run to ten matches.
And that means there’s now extra pressure on Rovers to pick up points away to Crystal Palace tomorrow night, especially with games running out to claw themselves out of the relegation zone.
“We’ve sold our top striker to them [Southampton] and he’s done us. That’s football,” reflected Rovers boss Dean Saunders.
“It will get easier than playing Southampton, but we’ve just got to make sure we pick up some points quickly now so it’s not going down to the last game of the season.
“We can’t lose heart because we played well against the top team.”
Fellow strugglers Bristol City earnt themselves a battling point away to play-off-chasing Middlesbrough at the Riverside at the weekend, which saw Rovers drop five points adrift of clawing their way out of the relegation zone.
With eight games remaining Saunders remains confident that the club can haul themselves to safety.
“There’s still nothing in it, though,” added the Welshman. “They’re [Bristol] five points ahead of us, but if we win two games and they lose one or two we could go above them. Situations like that are going to happen now.
“Palace is a big game for us now. We’ve got them and then Birmingham at home, so we’ve got to dig in.”
There was no doubt it was always going to be a tough ask for Rovers to upset the title-chasing Saints, but they squandered their best chance in the 16th minute and after that were punished for some poor defending.
Skipper El-Hadji Diouf was the culprit, taking far too long to pull the trigger with only Saints keeper Kelvin Davis to beat. And it was Sharp, a favourite with Rovers fans for the 41 goals he scored for the club in 77 starts, who made them pay.
Leading scorer Rickie Lambert was withdrawn four minutes into the second half due to tiredness, but any hopes his removal would weaken the Saints’ firepower were quickly forgotten. Sharp timed his run to the back post to perfection and headed Daniel Fox’s right-wing corner into the roof of the net to give the Saints a deserved 58th-minute lead.
Seventeen minutes later and Sharp had put the contest out of reach with his second goal of the afternoon.
In his first start for seven games the former Sheffield United marksman beat the offside trap and cooly rifled past helpless Rovers keeper Carl Ikeme.
“Our goalie never had a shot to save all the way through the game and I thought we controlled the game in the first half,” stressed Saunders.
“We kept the ball from them, limited them to a couple of free-kicks and corners and we had a great chance to score.
“Dioufy’s had a chance to put us in front, but we’ve not took that and then we get punished at the other end from a dodgy decision.”
Saunders was unhappy referee Danny McDermid had given Saints the corner which led to the opening goal.
The Welshman had a fair point, but he was honest to admit his team’s defending for both goals was not good enough.
“We didn’t play well last week, but we looked a lot fresher and there was a lot more energy in the team,” he said. “I brought a few new players in and we looked good. We controlled the game.”
Asked whether fatigue was playing it’s part in the club’s recent run of defeats, Saunders responded: “You’ve got to dig in. You’re going to lose the edge and little bit of sharpness, now we’ve got to play Tuesday and Friday next, which is ridiculous really. But that’s the way it is.”
Saunders made four changes to his side beaten 3-0 at home to Millwall on Tuesday night with Adam Lockwood, John Oster, Pascal Chimbonda and Herita Ilunga all included in the starting line-up.
And for the opening exchanges, with Oster operating in a holding role in front of the back four, Rovers were at ease against the league leaders. Frederic Piquionne could have headed the visitors ahead in the ninth minute from Simon Gillett’s pinpoint pass, but he headed wide at the back post.
Diouf wasted his good chance soon after, before tricky winger Steve De Ridder saw his goalbound shot bocked and deflected wide by the former Liverpool striker with the Saints’ best chance of the first half.
Sharp shot straight at Ikeme shortly after the restart.
Chimbonda and Sharp then became embroiled in a spat by the dugouts as the temperature boiled over not long after the home side had taken the lead.
Both players were lucky not to get sent off as they clashed heads, but it was Sharp who had the last laugh when he capitalised on some sloppy defending to secure the Saints maximum points.