At least Hal Robson-Kanu will remember 2016 fondly. The Welshman scored one of the goals of Euro 2016 during his country’s run to the semi-finals and he struck again here with an absolute rocket to claim three points in his first start for West Bromwich Albion.
In an evenly matched first half Shane Long headed Southampton into the lead, before Matt Phillips restored parity with a calm finish after a fluid move. But the game’s memorable moment came from Robson-Kanu and Tony Pulis was happy to sing the praises of the forward he signed as a free agent last summer.
“He is that type of player who’s so wholehearted, he gives everything all the time,” Pulis said. “I had no problem playing him; the problem came in leaving Salomón Rondón out. Hal’s been wonderful as a backup, if you like, but he showed today he’s kept his fitness high and was ready for his chance. I’ve got a choice to make on Monday now.”
After two consecutive away matches, the Baggies now return to the Hawthorns to face Hull on Monday in good heart. For the Saints, however, their Christmas has turned sour. After receiving a thrashing by Tottenham, this was a second consecutive home defeat and there were boos at the final whistle.
Their manager, Claude Puel, chose to rotate his side for the second of three fixtures in six days. But his decision to rest three of his first-choice back four looked odd even before the match. The only defender to retain his place, Virgil van Dijk, was sent off with minutes of the match remaining and will now miss Monday’s match against Everton at Goodison Park.
“Yes, you can say [you have regrets] after the result but if it’s not this game it would be the next game‚” Puel said of his changes. “We are the only team playing three games in six days, just us, and our squad have been playing many games since the beginning of the season. It was normal to make a rotation with all these games and I think it’s not the rotation that was the problem, it’s a problem of concentration and a problem of the calendar.
After a predictably physical opening, Southampton broke the deadlock with a goal their visitors would have been proud of. After seeing their passing triangles simply break against West Brom’s compact defence, the crowd favourite Dusan Tadic used the chance of a corner to whip a wonderful ball to the near post, which Shane Long met with a decisive header. Coming against one of his old clubs, it was the Irishman’s first league goal of the season.
Before the crowd had even finished celebrating, the Baggies were level. And their goal was equally uncharacteristic – an attractive move from open play. Chris Brunt played a one-touch pass round his marker to Robson-Kanu who, in turn, poked it to Matt Phillips. Cool as required, Phillips stepped inside Maya Yoshida and fired the ball low past Fraser Forster.
All square at half-time then, but it turned out Robson-Kanu had just been warming up. Just as he did during those summer nights in France, the striker pulled a world-class finish out of nowhere, thrashing the ball from 25 yards past both an unsuspecting Van Dijk, then the keeper and into the roof of the net.
Saints went two up top almost immediately, but that only proved an invitation for West Brom to do what they do best. The closest Saints got to a shot on target was when Ben Foster cleared the ball into an onrushing Jay Rodriguez. With the game about to enter added time, Van Dijk earned his second yellow card after tangling with the substitute Rondón.
The Dutchman, currently the subject of so much transfer speculation, ripped the captain’s armband off in disgust as he left the field.