Norwich’s survival hopes received a major blow as Southampton took a giant stride towards safety thanks to Danny Ings, Stuart Armstrong and Nathan Redmond strikes.
With Daniel Farke’s six points adrift and fast running out of time, the rock-bottom Canaries desperately needed to make a winning return to Premier League action after a 104-day break due to the coronavirus pandemic.
But a fine Norwich start quickly petered out as Southampton moved 10 points clear of the drop zone, with second-half goals from Ings, Armstrong and Redmond sealing a 3-0 win at an empty Carrow Road.
Saints waltzed to victory in East Anglia but things could have been so different had Ings not been alert in his own box during the opening minutes to close down Tom Trybull.
Ralph Hasenhuttl, who signed a new deal until 2024 earlier in the month, would see his side dominate the match after a shaky start, with Ings hitting the crossbar in the first half.
Saints turned their dominance into goals shortly after half-time, with the England hopeful scoring a fine curling effort before setting up Armstrong to bury a low shot past Tim Krul.
Redmond added a third against former club Norwich, whose uphill battle to avoid an immediate return to the Championship now has an even steeper incline.
As at Wednesday’s Premier League matches, both sides took a knee as part of the Black Lives Matter movement after observing a minute’s silence for those impacted by Covid-19.
Norwich flew out of the blocks when play got under way and penned the visitors in their own half, with Ings producing a fine recovery challenge to thwart Trybull from a free-kick just two minutes in.
Saints looked set to be caught cold but just about held out as Kenny McLean rifled a low shot just wide before Josip Drmic was closed out.
But Norwich’s breathless start wore off as the visitors took control, with Armstrong going close from a corner taken by newly-appointed club captain James Ward-Prowse.
Saints were pressing relentlessly and Jack Stephens impressively swept up, before bursting forward from the halfway line and playing wide for Ings to hit a first-time strike that hit the woodwork.
Hasenhuttl’s men were unable to find a first-half breakthrough but required just four minutes of the second period to pull ahead.
Norwich failed to deal with a throw-in on the left and Armstrong prodded into Ings, who curled a lovely shot from just inside the box past Krul into the top right-hand corner.
The roles reversed in the 54th minute as Saints extended their advantage.
Ings played the ball to Armstrong and the Scotland international showed good control and a cool head before firing a low shot past Krul from the edge of the box.
It was a gut punch that left Norwich reeling, with Jan Bednarek twice blocking Teemu Pukki before substitute Mario Vrancic saw a goal ruled out for offside.
A great goalline clearance by Max Aarons prevented Ward-Prowse getting in on the act, with Krul tipping an Armstrong shot wide as Saints looked for a third goal.
Southampton have just been so clinical on the counter-attack! 💥@9smudge isn't too impressed with the Norwich defending, though...😬
It arrived in the 79th minute. Michael Obafemi cut the ball across to former Norwich forward Redmond, who all too easily took the ball past Ben Godfrey and fired a low shot past Krul.
Nathan Tella came on for his debut as the clock wound down on a perfect restart for Saints. As for Norwich, Farke has plenty of work to do.
Match Highlights - Norwich City 0-3 Southampton
Ralph Hasenhuttl could not have been happier with Southampton’s victorious return to action on a night when Norwich’s survival hopes dimmed.
Having waited 104 days to resume Premier League action due to the coronavirus pandemic, Saints rode an early storm to emerge as deserved victors in front of empty stands at Carrow Road.
Danny Ings and Stuart Armstrong scored early in the second half, before Nathan Redmond completed a 3-0 rout at former club Norwich as manager Hasenhuttl celebrated his new four-year deal in style.
“In the end the result was absolutely deserved, I think,” the Southampton manager said after winning behind closed doors in East Anglia.
“We didn’t have a very good start today, so the first 10, 15 minutes we had (a) little bit (of) a problem finding the game, but it was getting better and better as long as the game was going, the longer game was open.
“I think it was not so easy for us in the beginning but we also in the first half had a few good chances.
“Finally, I think the last pass, the last dribble wasn’t perfect, but after the break Ingsy made the opener and then I think it was an absolutely deserved win.
“We had massive chances, good finishing and, yeah, especially against the ball very aggressive, we never lose our passion against the ball and I think this was a key factor of winning today.
“It’s not so nice when you win and celebrate with 10 or 15 people around you. It would be nice to have your away fans with you.”
Victory was a welcome shot in the arm in terms of Southampton’s survival hopes, with the 3-0 win moving them 10 points clear of the drop zone and just three shy of the 40-point mark.
“We have another eight games and what I can say is that we are absolutely fit,” Hasenhuttl said. “The team looks very, very fit at the moment.
“The longer the game was on, I think we had absolutely a physical advantage. This is important because this is a very intense environment.
“We now have a home game against Arsenal, a good team, so it’ll be interesting.
“We are really looking forward to these next games now and maybe we can climb a few positions.”
The loss is a major blow to rock-bottom Norwich’s survival hopes, with the promoted side still six points adrift of safety with only eight matches remaining.
Canaries boss Daniel Farke said: “Of course after a loss our situation has not improved.
“I made it clear before, out of the last nine games, just because of the points, we have to win five games, so it’s more like a best of nine series and we need to be there with five wins.
“Once you lose the first game, it’s not that the situation has improved.
“It’s getting even a little bit more difficult, but we wouldn’t dance on the table after a win and also it’s not like Norwich and for us to give up after a loss today.
“I think because of the second half today we have to accept the loss and that’s what we do.”