A HANDSHAKE, or the lack of one, dominated the headlines on Saturday.
Most onlookers gasped in disgust as Liverpool forward Luis Suarez failed to acknowledge Manchester United skipper Patrice Evra at Old Trafford to continue the most tawdry of situations.
There were nothing but pleasantries exchanged in the pre-match ritual at St Mary’s as former Clarets Jack Cork and Danny Fox renewed acquaintances, but, unfortunately for Eddie Howe’s men, that was as close as Burnley got to title-chasing Southampton all afternoon.
While there is no shame losing at the Saints – who had lost only twice at home in 27 league games – it was more the manner of defeat that dismayed Howe.
Burnley lacked aggression and energy against a side who were in their faces from the off, hitting them with a barrage of diagonal balls from back to front, which penned the Clarets in.
They could find no answer, denied the time and space to get into their passing rhythm, while almost seeming to pay too much respect to the Saints – standing off their opponents and failing to close them down.
Howe was hoping to use the game as a barometer of his side’s improvement against a side who have been in the top two all season, and look to have all the components for promotion, but he said: “We didn’t perform to our usual standard of late on our good run, for whatever reason we didn’t put them under any pressure.
“The frustrating thing is we haven’t really given a good account of ourselves and don’t really know how good we are because I didn’t feel we played to our full capabilities.”
Credit for that goes to Nigel Adkins and his players, who prevented Burnley’s full-backs getting out at all in the first half, while the front four as such were starved of service.
Under intense pressure, the Clarets gave the ball away and made mistakes, that were ultimately punished.
It looked like a severe defeat was on the cards before half-time, but, if there is one positive to take, Burnley improved after the break, and while Kelvin Davis remained untroubled in the home goal, they at least retained their record of, along with tonight’s opponents Barnsley, being the only clubs not to have lost at least one Championship game by more than two goals this season.
That statistic means the side have stayed in games, even when not at their best, and although this was as comprehensive a defeat as they have suffered all season – alongside the 2-0 home defeat to Middlesbrough – there were turning points that went against Burnley.
Notably a highly fortuitous second goal just after the half-hour when Billy Sharp looked to get on the end of Ricky Lambert’s lofted pass, and, after controlling the ball, saw it deflect heavily off Ben Mee, wrong-footing the excellent Lee Grant.
The other came just before half-time as Jay Rodriguez used his body to get goal-side of Jos Hooiveld, only to be pulled back inside the area. I thought “penalty” as did Howe and a number of other onlookers, but referee Trevor Kettle gave a free-kick against the Clarets forward.
But that is clutching at straws unfortunately, Burnley were second best against a more physical side who were commanding in the air and in the tackle, while using the considerable aerial prowess of Lambert to good effect.
It was the side with the best home record in the division; against the team with the division’s second best record away from home – which includes an unrivalled five away wins against top-half clubs.
It was set up for a real test of Burnley’ credentials, which made it all the more disappointing that they didn’t do themselves justice. As early as the seventh minute they were up against it as Frazer Richardson was too easily allowed to cross by Keith Treacy, and Adam Lallana guided a header beyond Lee Grant and inside the far post.
It could have been worse inside four minutes as Fox outmuscled Kieran Trippier in a challenge and advanced before pulling the ball back from Lambert, who forced a fine save from Grant and the first of 13 Saints corners.
From Lallana’s flag kick, Dean Marney headed off the line from Lambert as the hosts went for the jugular.
The Clarets struggled to enjoy possession high up the pitch, and a pass from the otherwise quiet Cork sent Sharp away, only for Grant to come out and smother the chance.
But Sharp forced a second goal, and you felt the game was up.
Howe had seen enough at the interval and replaced Treacy and Marney with Josh McQuoid and Marvin Bartley, and there was an improvement from Burnley, forcing a couple of corners and spending a rare spell in their attacking third, but just after the hour Lallana could have made it 3-0 after a loose pass from McQuoid allowed Lambert to release Cork, and the Clarets just managed to close out the cross.
Substitute David Connolly thought he had scored when he turned in the rebound after Grant saved Lambert’s daisy-cutter, but the Irishman had strayed off-side.
And the clock ran down in frustrating fashion for Burnley as the Saints enjoyed a spell of keep ball to the Ole’s of the home fans.
After 11 minutes, Southampton had had three of the four shots on target they would have all afternoon, and Grant, David Edgar and Michael Duff competed manfully to try and repel a potent attacking force, but with Burnley struggling to craft a chance of note – a real rarity – they were fighting a losing battle.
Howe hopes for a response at home to Barnsley tomorrow night.