Southampton’s pre-season campaign ended in a narrow defeat to seasoned European campaigners Villarreal at St Mary’s, but the game will be remembered for a moment of magic from Nigeria’s Joe Aribo.
Saints found themselves trailing to Yéremy Pino’s first-half header when summer signing Aribo embarked on a sublime solo run that carried him three-quarters of the length of the pitch, leaving three players in his wake before dispatching an unerring finish to beat veteran goalkeeper Pepe Reina on 64 minutes.
Aribo thought he’d scored again soon after, only to be flagged offside, before the prolific Gerard Moreno won the game for the visitors 18 minutes from time.
Ralph Hasenhüttl fielded an entirely different starting line-up to the one that began the midweek meeting with Monaco, highlighting Saints’ improved squad depth with the arrival of six new faces this summer. The boss still hopes to add more.
The most recent recruit, Sékou Mara, was making his debut, supported up front by Stuart Armstrong, while there was a first St Mary’s appearance for Roméo Lavia, sitting in front of a five-man defence, flanked in midfield by Aribo and James Ward-Prowse.
Armstrong was quick to register the first shot on goal from his more advanced role, though former Liverpool stopper Reina was able to smother it comfortably.
For the visitors, Champions League semi-finalists last season and Europa League winners the season before, Pino flashed a shot narrowly wide of Gavin Bazunu’s goal.
Bazunu was picking the ball out of his net for the first time in the 15th minute. Nicolas Jackson set off on a strong run down the left, with Armel Bella-Kotchap unable to stay with him, before Pino stooped to head home Jackson’s cross.
It was from a Ward-Prowse set-piece, ten minutes later, that Saints threatened an equaliser, as the skipper’s deep delivery perfectly picked out Armstrong, who had peeled away around the back, but his side-foot volley was into the side-netting.
The same fate befell Moussa Djenepo moments later, when Bella-Kotchap strode out of defence and delivered a beauty of a cross, but again the shot was wide of the near post.
Villarreal had been quiet since going in front, and squandered the chance to double their lead when Álex Baena sent a free-kick tamely into the wall.
When Saints broke, helped by some dazzling footwork from Aribo, Djenepo was brought down in a similar position at the other end.
Enter James Ward-Prowse, so often flawless from such range, but this time he struck the wall and Spaniards survived. Get those out the way in pre-season, Prowsey.
After Adam Armstrong entered the fray at half time in place of Mara, Bella-Kotchap showcased his crossing ability to pick out Djenepo once more, this time denied by the sprawling Reina who reacted smartly.
Saints were in need of inspiration, just as they were against Monaco when three second-half goals propelled them to victory.
It was left to Aribo to provide it with a sumptuous solo goal on 64 minutes. Having showcased his ability on his home debut with an assist for Armstrong, this time the Nigeria international took matters into his own hands.
Receiving the ball midway inside his own half, he surged into opposition territory, jinked inside and then back outside to wriggle away from two, before turning Pau Torres – a regular Spain international – inside out and finishing majestically into Reina’s top corner from 10 yards.
It was a moment to savour for all inside St Mary’s, marking the arrival of a potential new hero for the home fans.
Aribo’s stock was rising further just a couple of minutes later when he headed home Mohammed Salisu’s cross, but this time the offside flag was up and Saints’ celebrations were cut short.
It was another example of how the outside centre-backs, Bella-Kotchap and Salisu, are encouraged to join in the attack and deliver crosses that could become a feature of this season’s attack.
Bazunu had been largely untroubled since the restart, but the Irishman was beaten for a second time when Moreno showed his clinical instincts to bury his only chance of the game, a low shot across the keeper that left him no chance.
Cue a raft of changes for the visitors, including Moreno’s departure, while Saints maintained 10 of their 11 starters until the 83rd minute.
One of the late arrivals, Romain Perraud, came closest to a late leveller, only to see his skidding shot bobble agonisingly beyond the far post.