Southampton’s Under-21s were beaten for the first time this season as they suffered a 2-0 defeat to their Sunderland counterparts at Staplewood on Monday evening.
Saints, who led the league heading into the game, came up against third placed Sunderland eyeing their opportunity to overhaul Martin Hunter’s men which they achieved thanks to a two goal haul in the first half of this contest.
George Brady’s header and Duncan Watmore’s penalty gave Sunderland the foothold they needed to take all three points from the game, with Watmore notching his third goal in as many games against Saints at this level.
Saints improved in the second half, but were made to rue a missed spot kick from Ryan Seager after Josh Sims had been brought down inside the area.
Senior players Paulo Gazzaniga and Steven Caulker were in the starting eleven, with goalkeeper Gazzaniga making his third start of the season for the '21s. Ever-presents Dom Gape, Sam McQueen and Jason McCarthy also began the top-of-the-table fixture.
Visitors Sunderland got the game under way playing in their all green strip, and they made a bright start to the contest despite the fact that Saints drew the first opportunity of the match on three minutes when Jake Hesketh played in Ryan Seager on the edge of the area, and his strong low shot on the turn was pushed away by the outstretched arm of goalkeeper Maksymilian Stryjek.
But Saints put pressure on themselves when Armani Little’s under-hit backpass towards Gazzaniga conceded a corner which saw Sunderland defender Michael Ledger smash the ball over the bar.
That was a warning which Saints didn’t heed as the Black Cats took the lead on 12 minutes from another corner taken by Martin Smith.
Smith’s delivery picked out centre back George Brady who rose above Caulker to head into the net from a central position for 1-0.
Sunderland increased the pressure and worked Gazzaniga once more when Lynden Gooch struck a shot from range that the keeper had to push over the bar.
After a difficult 20 minutes or so, Saints weathered the storm and went close at the other end when Hesketh and Josh Sims exchanged on the edge of the area, with the former drilling a low shot wide
But despite growing into the game, Saints were dealt another blow three minutes before half-time when Josh Debayo’s clip on Duncan Watmore inside the area handed the Mackems a penalty.
Watmore picked himself up to find the bottom corner of the net, sending Gazzaniga the wrong way for a two-goal lead heading into the break.
Martin Hunter sent his team out early for the second half, and he was rewarded with an immediately improved showing from Saints.
An early chance came the way of top scorer McQueen, who showed neat control to bring down Jake Hesketh floated cross into the area but his flicked effort narrowly cleared the bar after beating Stryjek.
While that was close, Saints had an even better opportunity a minute later when Hesketh played Sims into the area where the winger was brought down for a penalty.
Seager stepped up but saw his spot kick saved by Stryjek which interrupted the hosts’ early momentum.
Saints stayed on top in the game, with Sunderland seemingly comfortable to defend their lead, but clear chances became less frequent, with McQueen drilling a shot wide before he was substituted as the hosts saw the game start to slip away.
Debayo saw a free-kick saved moments before Gazzaniga went into the book late on as he fouled Watmore outside the area on a frustrating evening all round for Hunter’s men.
Southampton Under-21s: Paulo Gazzaniga, Bevis Mugabi, Steven Caulker, Jason McCarthy, Josh Debayo, Dominic Gape, Armani Little, Sam McQueen (Lloyd Isgrove 71), Josh Sims, Jake Hesketh, Ryan Seager. Unused substitutes: Harry Isted (GK), Will Wood, Olufela Olomola, Alfie Jones.
Booking: Gazzaniga (83)
Sunderland Under-21s: Maksymilian Stryjek, Joshua Robson (Jordan Blinco 75), Thomas Robson, Liam Agnew, Michael Ledger, George Brady, Charalampos Mavrias (Ethan Robson 72), Martin Smith (Dylan McEvoy 90), Mikael Mandron, Lynden Gooch, Duncan Watmore. Unused substitutes: Rees Greenwood (GK), Greg Purvis.
Goals: Brady (12), Watmore (pen 42)