LONDON • James Ward-Prowse, on his 26th birthday, became just the ninth player in Premier League history to score two free kicks in a single game and the first since Christian Eriksen for Tottenham in 2015 as Southampton emerged with a 4-3 away win over Aston Villa yesterday.
But what should have been raucous post-match celebrations had to be turned down amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Because of social distancing regulations, the visitors had to travel to Villa Park in not one but three team buses, with Saints manager Ralph Hasenhuttl jokingly telling the BBC that Ward-Prowse would not be having a party.
He said: “No birthday celebrations for James, we travel home in three team buses, we’ll have to be celebrating for him on the inside!”
The unfancied Saints are, however, soaring to heady heights after leapfrogging the hosts and climbing to third in the top flight, only three points behind champions Liverpool.
While Villa won their first four league fixtures, Hasenhuttl’s men lost their first two matches this term.
However, Dean Smith’s players are experiencing a reversal of fortunes after slumping to their second successive league loss, while the Saints are steadily improving to get off to their best start to a season since 2014-15.
They had a 4-0 lead by the 58th minute, with Jannik Vestergaard and Danny Ings their other scorers and managed to hold on as the Villans stormed back, netting via Tyrone Mings, Ollie Watkins and Jack Grealish.
Hasenhuttl later claimed the victory “sends a great message” to the rest of the league that his team have higher aims beyond surviving relegation.
“We played against a very strong side today, we never gave up. We had a fantastic first half,” he said. “In the second, mentally, it was difficult. You concede the first, then you look at the time and you stop playing. This is always dangerous.
“In the end, it’s good we have this win, not a lot of teams will win here. The first two games at the start of the season were a disaster.
FELICITATIONS, IN SPIRIT
No birthday celebrations for James, we travel home in three team buses, we’ll have to be celebrating for him on the inside!
“But we showed a good reaction and now we play how we should. It’s good to see how the guys are developing. It’s a good message from the boys.”
In the other game, Jordan Pickford was dropped by Everton for the first time in 120 league games, dating back to his June 2017 move from Sunderland.
Toffees boss Carlo Ancelotti told reporters the England No. 1, who has been criticised for a string of shaky performances in goal this season, had been benched as he decided to give him “a rest”.
Sweden No. 1 Robin Olsen, who was signed from Italy’s Roma on a season-long loan on deadline day, made his first appearance of the term as Everton lost 2-1 at Newcastle yesterday. Newcastle claimed the lead through Callum Wilson’s penalty and a second goal in the 84th minute, holding on after an injury-time strike by Dominic Calvert-Lewin to secure the three points.