Football is such a cruel mistress. Despite a magnificent performance Saints were put to the sword at the death as Robin Van Persie completed a hat-trick. It was harsh on Saints who for significant spells of the game outplayed Manchester United and deserved to lead.
Rickie Lambert headed Saints ahead on 16 minutes.
As soon as the team sheets were published and the names were noted, Ferdinand, Kagawa, Valencia..... van Persie and compared with Fonte, Lallana, Ward-Prowse.... The thoughts began to spread, 'We can't really do this? Can we?' Thankfully the eleven starters in red approached the game in far more positive fashion.
As soon as the game began, Robin van Persie looked to make a further mark for his new club as he moved on our back-line. Manchester United's early possession showed signs of the class they hold but provided little cutting edge, only a long ball over found van Persie on the left side of our penalty area but his initial effort was dragged tamely across Davis' goal. Saints looked organised, the midfield three of Davis, Ward-Prowse and Morgan Schneiderlin worked very hard to break up United's play.
A corner to Saints fired the first warning shot across Ferguson's bow. The daisy cutting delivery wrong-footed last year's league runners up as it ran across the front of the box. Both Fonte and Lallana back-peddled to guide the ball home but their finishing let them down. Lallana's eventual shot sliced past the far post to safety.
The breakthrough came soon afterwards though and it owed a huge amount to Morgan Schneiderlin. His anticipation of a stray Manchester United pass in midfield allowed us to break forward. Feeding the ball to Steven Davis the Northern Irish Midfielder spotted Jason Puncheon peeling away to the right of the Penalty box. Cutting inside Puncheon wasted no time in delivering a left footed cross towards the far post; It was Rickie Lambert who's movement nulified his marker allowing him to beautifully head the ball back across Lindegaard and into the back of the net. St Mary's exploded with delight, it was 1-0 to the home side thanks to a superbly executed move.
Sadly, the lead was to be only brief. Antonio Valencia obtained the ball on the United right wing and sent a cross over the Saint's penalty area. Nathaniel Clyne cruelly lost his footing allowing van Persie all the time and invitation he needed to fire home from the edge of the six yard box. All square.
Despite the set back Saints didn't hold back, Rickie Lambert was allowed space from 30 yards out on 26 minutes and fired a powerful effort just to the left of Lindegaard's goalmouth. Adam Lallana and Jason Puncheon were providing a creative outlet down both flanks, keeping Rafael and Evra more then occupied when we had possession. Their constant work alongside Lambert's movement and our midfield three's endeavour providing a great compliment as we looked to take the game.
Manchester United naturally though were looking for outlets of their own and it was again Valencia who fired a cross from the right finding a Patrice Evra header at the far post. Davis' smart save raised further questions of how Valencia could be allowed such space to operate. Danny Fox again looked uncomfortable at left back as United looked to capitalise on the main weakness they had discovered.
After the probable hairdryer treatment Man Utd sought to attack Saints from the off in the second half, Shinji Kagawa giving the Japanese element of the crowd something to consider on 49 minutes as he made space for a shot that just cleared the bottom left corner of Davis' goal. The signing of Yoshida alongside the presence of Tadanari Lee and Kagawa in the team line-ups ensured there was a significant eastern presence in the St Mary's crowd but sadly for them only Kagawa actually graced the pitch for the away team. This shot was more then enough to remind the home faithful that Manchester United have every chance of punishing Saints should we lose focus for even a second.
Shockingly a lapse occured nearly immediately after, an ill judged pass from Davis to Danny Fox was pounced on by Valencia, he squared the ball to van Persie only for the dutchman to lash his shot wide of the far post. It was a warning, one we immediately took heed of.
Danny Fox captured the ball just within out half and fed it through to Rickie Lambert, who's movement out to the left had created a little extra space for him to work with. Immediately he forwarded the ball to Puncheon just in front of United's centre backs. Biding his time, Punch drifted across the defence towards the left before feeding it back to Rickie who by now was on the left hand edge of the penalty area. Puncheon's run and Rickie's presence had dragged the United defence across the goalmouth leaving space down their right hand side... and Morgan Schneiderlin had spotted it. It was Patrice Evra's turn to slip this time as he fell back to mark Morgan, who now in open space embraced Lambert's cross with a glorious header into the United net. Saints led, St Mary's was jubilant. For the second time in three league games we led 2-1 against one of the Manchester teams thanks to a richly deserved goal for Man of the Match Morgan Schneiderlin who had been instrumental in our positive display.
Despite this we hadn't finished yet. Puncheon twisted and turned in the penalty area to fire a shot at the bottom corner that Lindegaard forcefully pushed away. Lambert was controlling the tempo, spreading the ball in the Manchester half to Lallana and Puncheon and Jason was having the game of his life, terrorising Patrice Evra on occasions skipping past the frenchman as if he was static. The big guns were obviously needed for United and the inevitable arrival of Nani and trusted hand Paul Scholes looked to turn the game for Fergie's men. Scholes nearly made an immediate impact as he slotted a through ball into van Persie but his shot was directly at Kelvin Davis. We were however not finished yet.
Jason Puncheon spotted Rickie's run beyond a high Manchester United line on 67 minutes and set Lambert clear against Lindegaard. Sadly the ball ran deep into the right side of the Penalty area allowing Vidic and Ferdinand time to cover yet James Ward-Prowse was running in clear at the far post. Rickie's low pass across the goalmouth was snuffed out by Ferdinand and kept the score at 2-1. Ward-Prowse's first league goal and a 3-1 lead would have been inevitable had it not been for the ex England captain's interception.
Another lazy pass from Davis pressurised our defence as Nani charged into a barely defended box after disspossesing Clyne. His square ball to van Persie brought on a lunging tackle from Hooiveld who despite claiming the ball did take out the dutchman from behind; penalty to Manchester United. This astonishing football match did however bring about another incredible twist.
Van Persie stepped up and saw his chipped penalty palmed away by Kelvin Davis, a terrible penalty Davis read it superbly. It was still all to play for.
Following the penalty the final substitutions were made. To the bemusement of the home crowd our entire front three where substituted offering a debut to Emmanuel Mayuka and putting on Jay Rodriguez and Guly Do Prado in a move Nigel Adkins described as wanting to provide energy to the final fifteen minutes of the game. It didn't work.
With time running desperately deep Paul Scholes took control of the midfield, United were pressing and pressing but with no clear chances until the 87th minute. Clyne's offered a crucial challange on sub Javier Hernandez to grant Manchester United a corner. the corner was poorly cleared eventually finding Rafael. The right back's cross met the head of Rio Ferdinand with the effort grazing the post, the lose ball bounced back in front of goal and straight in front of van Persie. The ex Arsenal striker reacted first to put Man Utd level.
Almost immediately after restarting Manchester United forced another corner. Now into injury time Nani's corner met it's man in front of the front post. Despite Kelvin Davis reaching at full stretch it was Robin van Persie's header that snatched all three points for Manchester United and so cruelly robbed us of anything to show from an incredible game.
It's the kind of game that would be described as enthralling for the neutral or a classic comback if you are a Manchester United fan. For the home faithful though; heartbreak.
Saints: Davis, Clyne, Fox, Fonte, Hooiveld, Schneiderlin, S. Davis, Ward-Prowse, Puncheon (Mayuka, 74), Lambert (Guly, 75), Lallana (Rodriguez, 78 )
Unused Substitutes: Gazzaniga, Lee, Seaborne, Richardson
Man Utd: Lindegaard. Rafael, Evra, Vidic, Ferdinand, Valencia, Carrick, Cleverley (Scholes, 61), Van Persie, Kagawa (Nani, 61), Welbeck (Hernandez, 71)
Unused Substitutes: De Gea, Evans, Giggs, Powell
Van Persie, 23
Van Persie, 87
Van Persie, 90