Charlie Austin scored a first-half brace as Southampton made a winning start to their Europa League campaign with a comprehensive 3-0 beating of Sparta Prague.
It was the first time Saints were playing in the competition proper for 13 years having lost in the play-off round last term.
Saints boss Claude Puel made seven changes to his starting line-up and was rewarded with a committed performance and his first competitive victory since taking the reins at the St Mary’s Stadium.
Austin could hardly have made a stronger case for a regular place in Puel’s XI, winning and scoring a penalty after five minutes and doubling Southampton’s lead with a headed goal just before the half-hour mark.
Jay Rodriguez, who had been linked a loan move away from Southampton in the transfer window, then finished a brilliant team move in second-half injury time to complete a comfortable evening for the hosts.
Austin has now scored on his Premier League and European debuts for Saints and his performance, along with those of James Ward-Prowse and Maya Yoshida, will give supporters hope that their side has the strength in depth to make their eighth European campaign a successful one.
Sparta were Europa League quarter-finalists last season and Southampton’s dominance over them will send out a strong message to fellow Group K opponents Inter and Hapoel Be’er Sheva.
Austin surged forward at the first opportunity for Southampton and it was his cross that struck Costa Nhamoinesu on the arm after five minutes, prompting the referee to point to the spot.
The 27-year-old had to fend off an irate Dusan Tadic to take the penalty before calmly slotting the ball beyond the reach of visiting goalkeeper Tomas Koubek.
Saints’ bright start continued when Virgil van Dijk headed Ward-Prowse’s corner narrowly over the crossbar, while Sparta had little to show other than a Vyacheslav Karavaye cross that Lukas Julis turned narrowly wide.
Austin had the ball in the net again when he turned in a Cuco Martina cross with a diving header only to be adjudged offside, but the same duo combined to make it 2-0.
Martina’s cross from the right was met with a downward header from Austin, which slipped under Koubek’s hand and into the net.
Saints goalkeeper Fraser Forster dealt with Yoshida’s risky back-pass late in the half, but Southampton were otherwise untroubled before the break.
Tadic cut inside from the right flank to test Koubek with a low drive early in the second half as the hosts immediately re-established their superiority and controlled the flow of the game.
Sparta – who are second in the Czech First League – lost Lukas Vacha to injury, compounding the problems faced by coach Zdenek Scasny, whose side looked bereft of ideas to break Southampton down.
The visitors’ best attempt of the evening came from substitute David Lafata, who pounced on a rebound from Vaclav Kadlec’s shot and hit a sweetly struck drive that was well saved by Forster.
But Saints swept forward with one minute of injury time remaining and Shane Long squared to Rodriguez, who coolly side-footed home the third.
Key Opta stats:
– Southampton are one of five English sides (including Swansea) to win their opening group game in their debut appearance in the Europa League (Everton, Liverpool, Man City and Swansea).
– Charlie Austin is the first Southampton player to score a brace in the UEFA Cup/Europa League since Steve Moran in September 1981.
– The brace was the 17th of Charlie Austin’s professional career in all competitions, with four of those ending in a hat-trick.
– For the first time since December 2014, Sparta Prague have failed to score in the Europa League (scoring in 12 consecutive games beforehand).
– The Czech side have failed to win any of their last 15 games against English opponents (D4 L11, including qualifiers), last beating Watford 4-0 in the 1983-84 UEFA Cup.