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Is the San Siro just the start?

Milan may have ended in defeat but it still feels like a landmark in the Liebherr era

FC Internazionale Milano v Southampton FC - UEFA Europa League Photo by Pier Marco Tacca/Getty Images

The phrase that the journey is better than the final destination feels rather apt for Southampton this week. There is more than an element of truth in that there is disappointment in losing to Inter but that shows just how far both have come to that point.

Seven years ago,the Nerazzurri were on their way to domestic and European success under Jose Mourinho, while the Saints were in the lower reaches of League One after starting the season on minus ten points.

But that short period of time is a lifetime in football. If Inter's decline from one of the best in the world to also-rans in their own division has been drastic, then the rise of Southampton into Europe has been astronomical, especially given the well-documented changes in personnel from season-to-season.

Losing key players (and managers) has meant that jumping from 8th to 6th in the three seasons previous has been a feat in itself, and a trip to Milan has been the reward. For once it was fans rather than players on an exodus from the South Coast.

7000 fans decamped from the South to the North of Italy, and the Mediterranean peninsula's financial capital became a sea of red and white from Piazza Duomo to the Navigli canals, meeting together in the middle tier at the San Siro at 7pm to fill the away end with noise and colour.

The trip to Milan went well off the pitch with the locals seeming impressed at the sheer number of Saints who had made the trip and both sets of supporters were welcoming towards each other, which doesn't always happen when English sides head abroad.

On the pitch the performance was very good, too. There was no one who really disappointed apart from the front pairing of the understandably rusty Jay Rodriguez and the out-of-form Shane Long, with the duo both guilty of missing chances.

When Charlie Austin came on for the latter who hobbled off with an injury, the Saints top-scorer found the Inter goalkeeper Samir Handanovic in fine form; that the Nerazzurri shot-stopper was named in many reports as man-of-the-match says a lot about who was the dominant team on the night.

But yet, in a stereotypically Italian way, Inter stayed in the game and served up Southampton a San Siro sucker-punch. As chances for Rodriguez, Long and James Ward-Prowse went begging, from nothing Antonio Candreva scored the only goal of the game in such a clinical fashion that the Saints could only hope of having that coolness in front of goal.

Much is made of Inter's struggles with the team struggling in Serie A and in Europe, particularly at home where they had won just the once before the meeting with Claude Puel's men. Yet that victory was against Juventus nonetheless, and the names down the spine of the team showed the calibre of players they could call on.

With a back trio of Handandovic, the experienced Miranda and the talented Jeison Murillo, it meant that the likes of Eder, Mauro Icardi and Candreva did not need to be at their best to be effective. The goalscorer had barely threatened against Sam McQueen, who looked assured on his first full start for Saints, but his one moment of quality was enough.

For all the bluster of how the Premier League is 'the best in the world', the games against Inter and Midtjylland last season have shown that Europe is a much tougher stage than the bread-and-butter. The Italians may not have been busting a gut to win the ball off Saints, but once they took the lead there was only one team who were in control even with ten men.

It is the sort of savvy that England lack in international tournaments, and the knack of keeping the ball to take the sting out of a game, taking a breather and doing whatever it takes to get the win has to be admired, even if it is unattractive or immoral to some.

Inter will do the same again in the return fixture, but Puel's young side should take confidence that with the same cutting edge and slick football Saints can cause the Italian giants problems; add in a clinical edge and perhaps a famous win could be more than just a dream.

But even after defeat Thursday felt like a milestone of the Liebherr era, a real landmark of just how far the club has come since the darkest of days in administration, relegation and chairman-caused destruction. It is ironic that Saints return to Premier League action against Manchester City, as their return to the top flight at the Etihad against the Champions felt like an unthinkable dream in the dark days too.

Now, the next step is to make trips to Europe's finest football cathedrals like the San Siro a more regular occurrence, rather than what felt like a cup final-esque occasion on Thursday. The way that the club has come back from the abyss of 2009 shows that it is not as unthinkable as it may sound; as Jose Fonte' Instagram photo caption explains, the Saints are only just getting started.