1-0, min. 53, Boufal.
Southampton 1-0 Middlesbrough: Boufal's stunner the difference in an underwhelming encounter

Southampton 1-0 Middlesbrough: Boufal's stunner the difference in an underwhelming encounter

The summer signing's first ever Premier League goal was enough for the Saints to see off Boro at St Mary's, in a match that was very much one for the purist.

Kit Shepard

A fantastic Sofiane Boufal goal was enough for Southampton as they defeated Middlesbrough at St Mary's in the Premier League.

With the clash between two sides who have struggled to find the net all season, the limited amount of goalmouth action wouldn't have shocked anyone. Boufal's flash of brilliance was the sole moment of real excitement in what was in truth a dull game.

However, the result means Southampton bounced back from their tame Europa League exit with what was ultimately a straightforward victory, while Boro continue to search for their first away win since August. 

Predictable first-half

After a steady opening couple of minutes, is was the visitors who worked the first sight of goal. Forward Viktor Fischer found some space in behind the Saints defence on the left, before cutting inside and bundling the ball into the path of Jordan Rhodes, who saw his close-range shot smothered by Fraser Forster in the Southampton goal.

The home side quickly grew into the game, but unfortunately for them chances were rare and when they did come, they fell to defensive-midfielder Jordy Clasie. With only one goal ever in Southampton colours, the Dutchman wasted his team's best opportunities; flashing wide from 18 yards, before being unable to make any meaningful contact with left-back Sam McQueen's fine delivery from the flank despite losing his marker.

Nevertheless, Claude Puel's men were very much on top by the midway point of the first-half, but could only force a comfortable save from Boro 'keeper Victor Valdes courtesy of Jay Rodriguez, as the encounter failed to get the fans out of their seats.

With just over ten minutes before the interval, Saints midfielder James Ward-Prowse put together perhaps the worst 60 seconds of football this season. After sending a free header well wide of Valdes' goal, his backpass moments later inadvertently played in Fischer. Fortunately for the England Under-21 captain, the Dane could only strike the post from a tight angle after rounding Forster, before Christian Stuani couldn't force the ball in.  

This opening was the best and last chance of a forgettable first half, meaning that the two lowest scorers in the division unsurprisingly went back to the changing rooms with the deadlock yet to be broken.

Boufal brilliance

It is likely that manager Puel gave his players a kick up the backside during the break, as Southampton came out with noticeably more urgency, with Sofiane Boufal, Jose Fonte and Rodriguez all coming close in the opening five minutes of the second period due to the increased intensity.

It didn't take long thereafter, for the Saints improved approach to be rewarded. After receiving the ball from Ward-Prowse, Boufal turned unchallenged and unleashed a ferocious shot with his weaker left foot, which swerved and dipped its way into the top-left corner, leaving the stunned Valdes rooted to the spot. The feeling of relief was evident all around St Mary's, as the Moroccan's first ever Premier League goal had given Southampton a much-needed lead. 

Saints secure win easily

Instead of sparking the game into life, normal service was resumed after the goal, with both sides trying, and mostly failing, to break the opposition defence down. It took until the halfway point of the second half for the next attack of real note but Fischer, after bringing the ball down neatly inside the area, could only fire a wayward shot into the body of Fonte. The subsequent handball appeals from the away side were waved away by referee Stuart Atwell. Soon after, Southampton substitute Steven Davis almost made an instant impact, but Cuco Martina's teasing cross was just too high for him.

As the game entered its closing stages, the tension cranked up around St Mary's. Rodriguez's powerful header from a Ward-Prowse corner seemed destined for the back of the net, but Middlesbrough midfielder Aaron Clayton was in the right place at the right time; clearing the ball of the line to keep his side in the game.  

Southampton fans would have been expected a onslaught of Boro pressure in the dying minutes, but their concerns were proved unnecessary as they watched their team see out the victory very comfortably. If anything, they should have doubled their lead in injury time, but Rodriguez somehow put Nathan Redmond's cross over the bar from point-blank range.

It wasn't a match that will live long in the memory, but it could prove to be a crucial day in Southampton's season, with Boufal's superb goal giving them the perfect response to their Europa League exit and a return to the top-half of the Premier League. Middlesbrough meanwhile, sit just a couple of places above the relegation zone after a very uninspiring display, leaving manager Aitor Karanka with plenty to ponder as the hectic Christmas fixture list approaches.