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Club stalwart James Ward-Prowse marked his 26th birthday with two goals from fantastic free-kicks as Southampton survived a late Aston Villa rally to move up to third in the Premier League.

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The England midfielder also provided the assist for the opener for Jannik Vestergaard before Danny Ings made it 4-0. Two stoppage-time goals from the home side took some of the gloss off the victory for Ralph Hasenhuttl’s men.

As for Villa’s Dean Smith, his side have now lost their past two games and conceded seven goals in the process having won their first four fixtures.

After having been denied a goal by the finest of margins following a VAR check in the third minute, Saints took the lead when defender Vestergaard thumped home a header from Ward-Prowse’s delivery from the right. It was the Dane’s second goal in the past two away games.

It was 2-0 shortly after the half-hour. Winger Theo Walcott, back in the starting line-up, won a free-kick near the edge of the area for a foul by Douglas Luiz. Ward-Prowse stepped up and whipped the ball past Emiliano Martinez.

And just before half-time, the club’s former youth player repeated the trick after Matthew Cash had handled a yard outside the box.

Ings curled in an exquisite shot after the break for Saints’ fourth before Tyrone Mings managed to pull a goal back with 28 minutes of regular time still remaining, but the hosts could not build on it until the game was in its final moments. 

Ollie Watkins fired in from the penalty spot in the third minute of stoppage time, before Jack Grealish struck home from outside the area with almost the final kick of the match.

Smith’s side drop to seventh, a point behind Southampton.

Hasenhuttl’s general Ward-Prowse shines at Villa 

The current longest-serving player, Ward-Prowse has experienced a handful of highs and a clutch of lows with the club in his nine seasons at St Mary’s.

When Hasenhuttl was at his lowest ebb last October, following the 9-0 drubbing by Leicester, he looked to the likes of his skipper and Ings to bail him out of trouble. They did so and now the Austrian boss is getting the most out of the pair at the other end of the table. 

Ward-Prowse’s ability from set-pieces is unquestionable, but on Sunday he reached new heights:

  • He has now scored seven direct free-kick goals for Southampton in the Premier League, equalling the record of ex-player Matt le Tissier.
  • He is the ninth player in Premier League history to score two direct free-kick goals in a game, and the first since Christian Eriksen for Tottenham against Swansea in October 2015.
  • He is the first player to score two direct free-kicks in the first half of a PL game.
  • He also scored and assisted in the same Premier League game for the second time, the first being in February 2018.

The team as a whole have improved markedly having lost two of the first three matches of the season. A comeback against Chelsea in a 3-3 draw was followed by their 2-0 win over previously unbeaten Everton last week.

This match saw them build on those past two displays, especially in attack. It was the first time they had been three goals up at half-time since a 5-1 win over the same team in May 2015.

This current crop of Saints are impressive in counter-attacks and carry a big threat from set-pieces. In what could be a Premier League season of surprises, Southampton might be a team that takes full advantage.

Hasenhuttl was delighted with his side’s overall performance but said they found it “mentally difficult” in the second half.

“You concede the first, then you look at the time and you stop playing – this is always dangerous,” said the 53-year-old, in his third season with the club. 

“The first two games at the start of the season were a disaster. 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.”

He said there would be no birthday celebrations for Ward-Prowse.

“We travel home in three team buses – we’ll have to be celebrating for him on the inside,” added the Saints boss.

Villa leave it too late

The final scoreline flattered Villa, who only sporadically showed the form that earned them a full 12 points from 12 at the start of the campaign.

It was defensive errors that cost them on Sunday. Vestergaard was unchallenged for the opener, Luiz produced a clumsy tackle, while Cash handballed needlessly before he generously gifted Ings space and time to shoot from the edge of the area.

Mings’ header with just less than 30 minutes of normal time remaining made the improbable slightly less so, but it was not until stoppage time that they added a second when Watkins fired in after Grealish had been fouled.

Their talisman, who had another quiet game, then sent a third past Alex McCarthy, who remained motionless. The home side raced back to the centre circle with the ball but their hopes were dashed by referee Darren England seconds after the restart.

Afterwards, manager Smith said: “It’s a hard game to decipher. They have a specialist free-kick taker and he’s put one on a plate for the first goal and scored two great goals. We were 3-0 down at half-time – we weren’t at our best, but it was a bitty half with lots of stoppages.

“We had to try and change the game and if it had gone on another five minutes we might have won it, never mind get a point.”

Ings’ great form continues – stats

  • Southampton have now won 14 of their 34 Premier League away games under Hasenhuttl – their joint highest tally under one manager in the competition, along with Ronald Koeman (14 wins in 38 away games).
  • Villa have lost consecutive Premier League games for the first time since July, having gone eight without defeat (W6 D2) prior to their past two games.
  • Since the start of last season, only Leicester’s Jamie Vardy (29) has scored more Premier League goals than Saints’ Danny Ings (27). No player has scored more from outside the box than Ings (five) in this period.
  • Jannik Vestergaard has scored in each of his last two away games for Southampton in the Premier League, after netting none in his first 22 on the road in the competition.

What’s next?

Southampton host Newcastle on Friday at 20:00 GMT and Villa are at Arsenal next Sunday at 19:15 GMT.