Tottenham Hotspur v Chelsea - FA Cup Semi Final

As it happened: Chelsea vs. Barcelona

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Barcelona were stymied in their return to Stamford Bridge, Chelsea getting a first half, injury time goal from Didier Drogba to outlast Barcelona. Here’s how it happened.

Score: Chelsea 1 (Drogba 45+2′), Barcelona 0

90+3′ – Unbelievable sequence. Messi rolls a ball in for Pedro, whose backheel seems to give Messi a golden chance, but Terry is there for a despeartion challenge. The ball is out to Pedro who puts it off the far post, with Thiago firing the rebound into the stands. Seconds later, the whistle blows, and Chelsea has done it. They’ve executed their plan perfectly and will go to Cataluyna with a 1-0 win.

90′ – Barcelona continues to possess, continues to wait for something to open up. Nothing is happening, though they’ve won a corner have Didier Drogba comes back to help a fallen Jose Bosingwa. Three minutes of extra time are announced before a Alves corner targeting Puyol is cleared. Mascherano tries to switch the clearance over to Cuenca, but it goes out for a throw.

88′ – Chelsea makes their second change. Ramires comes off. Jose Bosingwa is on.

87′ – Xavi, who played more than you might have thought ahead of Saturday’s Clasico, is off. Isaac Cuenca is one. On the restart, Messi swings a ball in for Puyol, who flicks toward the left post. A diving stop keeps the score even. (Xavi left having completed 128 passes)

86′ – There’s just nothing for Barcelona. They’re going to have to be more aggressive, because with nine Chelsea defenders at the edge of the area, they’re most than content to let Barcelona kick the ball around.

84′ – For the last three minutes, it’s been Barcelona retaining possession in their final third. Every time Chelsea rebukes them, Barcelona’s able to retain possession. Drogba’s frequently dipping into the final third, but Barcelona’s not generating chances. Finally, Chelsea earn a goal kick.

80′ – For a moment, every player on the field (save Victor Valdés) was within 45 yards of Chelsea’s goal. A second later, Chelsea’s bursting out of their own half, but it’s Drogba taking on the world. Kalou comes in from the right and tries to retrieve a ball, but Adriano is there to cut him off.

78′ – Barcelona’s second change: Cesc Fabregas is off after a decent day (even if he would have liked a goal). Thiago Alcántara’s on.

77′ – Messi’s spend a lot of his time in the second half trying to dribble through Chelsea’s defense. This time, Meireles leaves a leg in and gives up a foul 35 yards from goal. This is Dani Alves territory, but he blasts it into a three-man wall.

76′ – Busquets goes into the book. A burst out of Chelsea’s end saw Ramires with a head of steam down the left line. Busquest came across and slid through Ramires, who is still down. I’m sure Chelsea wouldn’t mind the rest.

75′ – Stats … Possession: Chelsea 29-71 Barcelona; Shots: Chelsea 4-19 Barcelona; Shots on target: Chelsea 1-5 Barcelona.

74′ – Mata’s off for Kalou. Juan may have just set a record for the fewest touches in the history of ever.

72′ – Salomon Kalou is about to come on. You could see Mata (invisible) or Ramires (carrying a card) coming off.

71′ – Another yellow card, as after a bad giveaway from Barcelona, Ashley Cole bring the ball into the attacking third, only to be brought down by Pedro, who’d been beaten. The restart gives Chelsea another chance to bring their defenders forward, but nothing comes of it.

69′ – Barcelona draw another foul, this time Ramires running through the back of Messi just outside the box. A yellow’s produced, which may be a bit harsh (but not unreasonable). Messi has a change from 19 yards, roughly even with Cech’s left post. Alves is also lining it up, but Messi runs over the ball and leaves it for Xavi, who puts it 5 feet over.

67′ – Drogba is down again, to the chagrin of Barcelona’s players, who are tired of play being stopped for him. He has been taken a few blows today. This time, the replays show he fell awkwardly while fighting a number of Barcelona defenders to win a ball coming out of his team’s end. Looks like a possible groin problem.

66′ – First change for Barcelona. Pedro is on for Sanchez, who had a tough day.

66′ – Messi has another run at Chelsea defense, with a midfielder sent to ground as he takes another run at Terry and Cahill. Back, back, back they go before Messi lets it go from 18 yards out. It’s blocked out of play.

65′ – Long ball out of Chelsea end, and Drogba goes a great job to win it and draw a foul. That’s the type of play that will get Chelsea to 90.

64′ – Handball against Mikel as Messi tries to flick the ball around the Chelsea midfielder. This is a very dangerous spot. It’s just to the right of goal and 23 yards out – a near perfect place for Messi. There’s enough roo to get it up and over the ball … but he can’t do it.

62′ – Messi picks up a ball just inside Chelsea’s half and has a chance to run at the defense. Just inside the penalty area, with three Blues around him, he tries to cut back onto his right foot. Cahill gets a crucial touch.

61′ – A Barcelona attack built through the right eventually leads to a Chelsea goal kick. Everybody but Drogba was in their penalty area when the ball went out.

58′ – Ball from the left sent through by Barcelona, but it’s a step behind Sanchez at the far post. Alves tries to come onto a shot but puts it into row 16.

58′ – Barcelona’s finishing has been a cause of concern all year, with many fearing the exact scenario we’re seeing to tonight. It’s not just that Barcelona’s failing to convert their decent chances. They’ve had great chances and hadn’t been able to open their scoring.

57′ – Barcelona with another great chance that goes wanting. Sanchez in fromt the right plays to Fabregas who pulls off a nice little scoop over Terry and Cole, delivering a golden opportunity for Sanchez. Alexis hesitates, allows Cole and Cech to close him out, and the ball’s played out for a goal kick. That’s two Alexis should have finished.

55′ – A giveaway by Mikel, a few touches from Barça, and Messi is running toward the defense. Terry and Cahill collapse into their own box as Messi lets one go from 18 yards. Blocked.

53′ – Corner kick from Chelsea sees Gary Cahill unmarked, running at the far post. The Lampard kick is just a little too high for Cahill’s outstretched leg, but Chelsea’s still showing that any time they can put the ball into the Barcelona area will create a dicey moment foe the Catalans.

52′ – One thing I’ve ruefully neglected to mention: It’s now raining at Stamford Bridge.

51′ – Great run by Adriano. The left defender gets the ball just inside Chelsea’s half, dribbles pst two defenders to the edge of the arc before trying to curl one inside Cech’s left post. A diving save and good clearance by Cech defuses the danger.

50′ – Barcelona with another corner kick, another try that’s dispensed without a second thought.

48′ – Chelsea’s defensive shape looks unchanged. They’ve got a midfield line of four in fron of Mikel, a line that collapses deep. A second ago, there were only a few yards between it and the defense.

46′ – They’ve restarted at Stamford Bridge with no chances. Not that either side need any. Barcelona have had three or four really good chances, while for Chelsea, this is just how their 180 minutes are going to be.

Halftime: Via UEFA’s stream, journalist Graham Hunter relays the scene from Stamford Bridge:

Whether the delirium unleashed after Didier Drogba’s fine goal here at Stamford Bridge is joy or relief is hard to tell. Barcelona have scorned three gaping chances and now the home side lead.

Halftime: Chelsea has to feel a bit fortunate that neither Fabregas nor Sanchez converted their chances, but that’s soccer. Chelsea’s executing the formula we’ve seen work for Rubin Kazan and (perhaps to a lesser extent) Inter Milan. They’ve been patient and waited for their chances. Pep Guardiola is going to be disappointed that the opener came after Barcelona gave up a ball they normally would not.

Halftime: Some numbers … Possession: Chelsea 32-68 Barcelona; Shots: Chelsea 3-10 Barcelona; Shots on target: Chelsea 1-4 Barcelona.

Halftime: Chelsea spent the first half hoping for a mistake, and right before time, they got it. A giveaway by Barcelona allowed Frank Lampard to spring Ramires, who set up Didier Drogba for the opening goal. This is how they drew it up, and after 45 minutes, Chelsea’s up one.

45+1′ – Chelsea is in front! Lampard with a nice ball from the center line out left finds Ramires, who has a ton of open space in front of him. Alves is way up field and Xavi can’t track him down, allowing Ramires to put the ball back across the six for Drogba, who puts home the opening goa. Chelsea 1, Barcelona 0.

45+1′ – Long ball from Terry to Ashley Cole, but the official’s flag goes up again. Chelsea’s had trouble with Barcelona’s line, and even when they’re able to play behind it, Puyol and Mascherano have proven too quick.

43′ – Barcelona comes within inches (ok, maybe feet) of scoring. They catch Chelsea on a counter, and Messi threads ball perfectly out to the left for Fabregas. Cesc chips Cech, but Cole gets there in time to clear it, about two feet before it crossed the line.

42′ – Barcelona wins a corner kick after a Alves cross is blocked out of play by Cole. Xavi’s restart is headed out, with Alves’ resulting shot going out for a goal kick. Barcelona doesn’t have a lot of chance at winning those balls. They mat as well play their corners short.

40′ – Another chance for a long throw from Ivanovic, with Drogba winning another header. Without Piqué, Barcelona doesn’t have anybody to contest the throw coming in from their left unless they want to have Puyol follow Drogba around.

38′ – Foul on Alves as he tries to retrieve a ball Mikel had won, and it gives us a good chance to note: Chelsea’s fouls have drastically slowed down since the opening minutes. Much of that is probably Barcelona settling into the game, spending less time surging, more time stretching the defense.

36′ – Funny moment where Puyol appears to be holding his right hand out, as if he’s hurt his wrist. John Terry reaches out and grabs it.

34′ – Something new from Barcelona: A chip from Messi over Ashley Cole for Dani Alves. Cole has to dive to put the ball out for a corner.

32′ – After kicking it around a bit, Barcelona sees Fabregas chip into the middle for Messi who spots Iniesta making a run at Cahill. Iniesta with a little dummy lets the ball run outside of Cahill, but Terry’s there to clear it out for a throw.

30′ – Chelsea has their longest spell of possession, stringing together eight passes but never approaching the center line. Terry eventually plays it up for Drogba but the whistle blows. Offside.

29′ – Fernando Torres is warming up.

28′ – The match is starting to play out as you’d expect, given Chelsea’s approach. They’re sitting very deep – often with nine men lined up in the eight yards outside their penalty area. Barcelona is kicking it around, tying to stretch the defense. That doesn’t mean Barcelona hasn’t had their chances. Fabregas just shoot Cahill to put a powerful left-footed shot right at Cech, while a cross from the right saw Messi put a strong header on goal, forcing a diving save.

26′ – Possession: 71% Barcelona. Shots: 5-1, Barcelona.

25′ – Xavi ties to hit Messi running through the left channel, but Cahill heads it away.

23′ – Chelsea tries to spring on a counter off a corner, but a poor Meireles pass gives possession back to Barcelona. Barça reestablishes themselves in Chelsea’s end, and with the Blues working to regain their shape, they give Barça a little too much time on the ball. Messi-to-Sanchez-to-Messi leads to a little through ball for Iniesta, but Cech is there.

20′ – Another long ball by Barce trying to get Fábregas through that left channel forces Cech to punch it out for the throw. That looks like it’s going to be a huge problems for Chelsea, particularly if Barcelona starts using Iniesta with support from Xavi to attack that spot. Barca’s last big chance came through that channel, and now Fabregas has almost purged it, twice.

18′ – Chelsea with another long ball. Drogba wins this, flicks on for Ramires coming in from the left, who causes some chaos before Alves puts it out for a throw. Ivanovic puts in another long throw that Barcelona looks uncertain under. This is all looking very Stoke-y.

17′ – Messi’s first shot of the match is blocked. Given the ball 22 yards out, he plays it onto his left foot only to see the ball sent back out. Barcelona regains possessions, moves into the left side of the box, where Messi puts Barcelona’s first shot on Cech. The ball’s blocked right to Fabregas, seven yards out, who can’t directed it into goal.

16′ – A surprisingly long ball from Barcelona tried to hit Fabregas running in the channel between Ivanovic and Cahill. Cech is there to scoop it up.

15′  – Drogba is down for a little, but it’s nothing serious. Trying to play a bouncing ball in midfield, the top of his foot hits Busquets’ knee. He’ll be fine.

14′ – Another Chelsea foul sees Meireles late challenging Busquets. Barcelona restarts, their possession number down to 74%.

12′ – First time play’s stopped for a while, and Alexis Sanchez is down. As the Chilean turned to mame a run, Terry stepped into his path and knock him on his backside. Sanchez gets up flexing his right leg as if he has a charlie horse.

11′ – A long throw from Ivanovic almost gives Chelsea the lead. No Barca defenders attack a ball that eventually drops at the edge of Cech’s six. Panic sees the ball eventually cleared, but Barcelona almost gifted Chelsea the first goal.

9′ – The first real chance to the night sees a ball chipped over the line for Sanchez, whose run into a space vacated by John Terry gives him a shot at an open goal (as Cech comes out).  The shot goes off the woodwork. Chelsea gets very lucky.

8′ – As expected, the whistles are coming quick, as Chelsea picks up their third foul. It’s nothing dirty on Chelsea’s part – just a function of Barcelona’s possession and aggression. The restart is put right at Cech for an easy catch.

7′ – The crowd gasps as Drogba touches the ball. That’s how it works. The big man touches it past Carles Puyol from 35 yards out but is shielded off the ball as Valdés claims it.

6′ – In the buildup we talked about watching Dani Alves, his positioning, to see what formation Pep Guardiola intends on playing.  To this point, he’s positioned as a wing back, leaving Barcelona 4-3-3.

6′ – Possession stat that just flashed on the screen: 83% for Barcelona.

4′ – Announcers mentioned it early, but tracking his movements, it’s holding true. Ramires is going to be asked to track countryman Dani Alves. Those two can run all day.

3′ – Long ball out of the back from Cech finds Didier Drogba, who was out of position to win that ball but outpaced Mascherano while it was in flight. His touch can’t settle it, and Valdés claims it.

2′ – Chelsea’s first touch came after 74 seconds, but the play was immediately whistled for a foul on BIvanovic. At 1:52, Ramires takes the ball off Messi. Chelsea finally have it.

1′ – Early on, Chelsea looks like they’re going to play a 4-5-1/4-1-4-1, with (left to right) Ramires, Meireles, Lampard and Mata in front of Mikel in midfield.

0′ – We’re off. Barcelona kicks off going left-to-right on your mental screen.

[limbo] – The teams are lined up on the field, and the Champions League anthem is playing. Cameras spent much of their time focused on Lionel Messi, dwarfed as he walked jaw-clenched beside Didier Drogba.

Handshakes are done. We’re about to start.

[limbo] – Start time is upon us, and the crowd at Stamford Bridge are waiting for the players to enter the arena. The teams are in the tunnel, lining up, with Terry and Puyols ready to lead their sides out.

5′ – Prematch footage show Frank Lampard, Didier Drogba giving very realistic assessments of what they’re up against. Barcelona is the best club in the world, they agree. Lampard called them the best team of his lifetime, though there was no fear in his face. His voice didn’t waiver. Instead, you had two men accepting the challenge and almost eager at the prospect of  doing something great.

-12′ – @ChelseaFC on Twitter has been posting pics throughout the day. Most are fan Twitpics of how they’re spending their time in the buildup to kickoff (though an interesting one snapped Bolton captain Kevin Davies at Stamford Bridge with his sons).

One that stuck out to me:


It will look a little different to the players in a few minutes. The blue seats will be obscured by blue-clad supporters, though it’s good to know that the Road to Munich is also painted blue.

-20′ – Many of you have already seen this quote, but it’s still a good reminder of Roberto Di Matteo’s approach to these matches:

It’s fair to say we need two perfect performances, but the fact we have been performing so well over the past six weeks gives us the belief. I think Barcelona don’t like facing us – past results have shown that.

If he needs two perfect performances, it’s fair to say he’s picked (what he thinks is) his best team. So … Raul Meireles?

-25′ – This bit from Spain-based Guardian journalist Sid Lowe may provide some insight into Fernando Torres’ reaction to today’s lineup:

Drogba starts. Comes as a surprise to many … not least to Torres

(via Twitter, @sidlowe)

I think we all wish the best for Fernando Torres at this point, but he can’t be too surprised when Didier Drogba’s selected over him. Perhaps there was something said to Torres assuring him he’d start against his him country’s best – I don’t know. Even so, the selection (or, change of mind) can’t surprise that many.

-28′ – Also from UEFA, this little factoid:

[Barcelona and Chelsea] have faced each other ten times in UEFA competition and cannot be separated. Each has three wins apiece with four draws.

-29′ – A little bit from UEFA’s Trevor Haylett explaining why Gerard Piqué is on the bench (the rest, we kinda already knew):

Gerard Piqué, who has been struggling with a thigh injury, only makes the bench for Barcelona with Adriano coming into the starting XI. The other change from the side that beat AC Milan sees Alexis Sánchez preferred to Isaac Cuenca.

-42′ – Now Chelsea’s team:

G: Petr Cech
RB: Branislav Ivanovic
CB: Gary Cahill
CB: John Terry
LB: Ashley Cole
DM: John Obi Mikel
CM: Frank Lampard
CM: Raul Miereles
RF: Ramires
CF: Didier Drogba
LF: Juan Mata

Subs: Turnbull, Bosingwa, Essian, Malouda, Torres, Kalou, Sturridge

Chelsea fans aren’t going to be thrilled to see Raul Miereles, a player whose failed to replicate his Liverpool form since his summer move to London.

Other surprises? None, really. Some thought Torres might start, especially with Drogba getting the call on Sunday, but Di Matteo is willing to bet players like Drogba and Lampard can make the quick turnaround. You can’t help but think they’ll be on the bench this weekend against Arsenal.

Also, subs have been added to the Barcelona lineup, below.

-47′ – UEFA doesn’t have these on their site yet, but it’s floating around Twitter: Barcelona’s starting lineup.

G: Victor Valdés
RB: Daniel Alves
CB: Carles Puyol
CB: Javier Mascherano
LB: Adriano
CM: Sergio Busquets
M: Xavi Hernández
M: Andrés Iniesta
F: Cesc Fábregas
F: Lionel Messi
F: Alexis Sanchez

Subs: Pinto, Piqué, Bartra, Thiago, Keita, Pedro, Cuenca

That’s listed as a 4-3-3, but given how Dani Alves is deployed, it could play as a 3-4-3 or a 3-3-4 (or, as Jonathan Wilson confirmed yesterday, a re-inverted pyramid – 1-2-3-4 – with Mascherano sitting deeper than Puyol and Adriano).

And just as I go to hit “Update” on this post, UEFA has confirmed the lineups. Chelsea’s in a second.

-60′ – Welcome, all. We’re still about an hour from kickoff in West London.  Starting lineups should be out soon. Until then, we’ll be offering up the tidbits we get from Stamford Bridge: UEFA’s updates, experts vibing on twitter, and the random video or pic, as needed.

We’ll be with you from now until the final whistle (praying for as little controversy as possible). We’ll have post-match thoughts and reaction, but in the interim, you can check out:

Bayern Munich CEO likens Premier League youth recruitment to “kidnapping”

MILAN, ITALY - JANUARY 12:  Karl Heinz Rummenigge attends   the Financial Fairplay Europe & Italy Workshop on January 12, 2016 in Milan, Italy.  (Photo by Vincenzo Lombardo/Getty Images)
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In the midst of building a new youth academy, Bayern Munich CEO Karl-Heinz Rummenigge has laid out his ideal setup for training youth players to be stars for the German giants.

Rummenigge told fans that his club would seek out youngsters to develop, but his strategy differs from the method of recruitment used in England. Heavily.

“We don’t want to bring some 10- or 11-year-old to Munich like the English do,” Rummenigge wrote in the club’s magazine. “You could almost consider it kidnapping and I would have moral reservations about that. I believe 14 is a good age for a youngster to come to Bayern.”

The Bavarians have produced some world-class talent in recent years, including Bastian Schweinsteiger, Thomas Muller, and current captain Phillip Lahm. However, the club has also become known for poaching top talent across the Bundesliga as well, most recently having snatched Mats Hummels from Borussia Dortmund and rising young star Josh Kimmich from Stuttgart. This has led to a period of dominance, but at the expense of parity in the Bundesliga title race.

The new academy, located just down the road from Allianz Arena, is expected to be completed next summer.

Rummenigge continued to take shots at English clubs, next targeting the amount of players they train, saying, “Imagine this: Chelsea currently have 41 promising players out on loan, including Andreas Christensen at Borussia Monchengladbach. I know that Manchester City can train up to 250 players at their facility, together with their parents. It’s virtually like a real-life village. But we want to be more cautious. We don’t want a football factory.”

In recent months, a number of top La Liga clubs have been hit with transfer bans for breaking FIFA rules regarding youth transfers, but it seems something has found its way under Rummenigge’s skin with regards to the behavior of English clubs.

Southampton’s fans take over Milan

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MILAN — As Southampton’s players walked out at the San Siro to play Inter Milan on Thursday, many of their huge band of traveling fans had tears in their eyes.

They never thought they’d ever see this.

Saints lost 1-0 to Inter in a game they dominated but they were punished for missing five glorious chances by the three times European champions.

Still, what a journey it’s been.

From League One in 2009 to the Europa League in 2016 – some perspective: Inter won the Champions League, Serie A and Coppa Italia treble under Jose Mourinho in 2010, while Saints won the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy and finished 7th in League One — Southampton’s fans didn’t lose sight of the miraculous turnaround in their fortunes, even if one of the biggest nights in club history ended in defeat.

“There were tears in my eyes when I first arrived and saw it all,” Saints fan Adam Gray recalled as he stood in central Milan on Friday. “It was because it was a recollection of where we’d been and we are now is where we want to be. It was a realization that now we are here.”

For Saints fans “here” is Europe and they took over Milan for the past few days with thousands chanting along the Navigli Canals, the square in front of the Duomo Cathedral and all over the cosmopolitan, thriving hub of Italy’s economy.

[ MORE: Europa League schedule/tables ]

As they reveled in their dream away day in Group K – Saints had never made the group stage of the Europa League before and had brief and sporadic campaigns in Europe in the 1970s, 80s and in 2003 — there was always a lingering feeling to remember just how far they’ve come.

Six years ago to the week of the Inter game Saints lost at Huddersfield Town in the Championship, just a few months after gaining promotion from the third-tier.

Back then the San Siro and Milan seemed a million miles away. Reaching Europe was a pipe dream which was talked about in the halls of St Mary’s following Swiss billionaire Markus Liebherr saving the club from extinction in 2009. Nobody truly believed it would happen. But it is. Saints fans couldn’t stop pinching themselves. This was happening.

Lifelong fans John McManus and Martin Wolfe stood in the San Siro and looked down at their team taking on Inter: “It’s just surreal,” they both said, with a wry smile.

Close to 7,000 Saints fans packed into the away end of the San Siro, with Internazionale happily giving an extended ticket allocation after the initial batch sold out quickly.

MILAN, ITALY - OCTOBER 20: (L-R) Marcelo Brozovic of FC Internazionale competes for the ball with Oriol Romeu of Southampton FC during the UEFA Europa League match between FC Internazionale Milano and Southampton FC at Giuseppe Meazza Stadium on October 20, 2016 in Milan, . (Photo by Pier Marco Tacca/Getty Images)

It Itwas said to be one of the largest ever allocations for a team who had gone to the San Siro. The Milanese people were stunned as retro Panini stickers of Saints legend Francis Benali were popping up all over town, plus a friendly atmosphere was present throughout the three-day Southampton takeover with no hint of any trouble with the locals.

This was a once in a generation, maybe once in a lifetime, experience for Southampton’s fans.


Southampton’s players and manager, Claude Puel, knew how much this game meant.

In the prematch press conference at the San Siro stadium on Wednesday, ProSoccerTalk asked manager Puel, who’d only took charge this summer, if he would playing his strongest team given the significance of the occasion.

“I don’t know my best team because all the time we can change five or six or nine players. For the moment we continue a good way with all the players,” Puel said. “It’s important to keep all the squad with a good concentration. If we want to stay with good results and a good physical level for all the games it’s important to respect all my players.”

“For example, of course this game is very important to us but after it is very important also the game away against Manchester City. All the games are important but for me my job is to have every time a good balance on the team with good players and good feeling between them, a good acquaintance. This is my job.”

The job of the fans was to get behind their team and that they did.

Walking around the streets of Milan, St. George’s banners were hung up with “Pride of the South” and “Southampton FC” emblazoned across them. There was dancing in the streets and late night chanting in bars. It was everything you could expect from a big European game. Except, Saints aren’t usually involved in matches like this.

This whole European campaign is seen as not only a reward for finishing sixth in the PL last season, but also their journey since the brink of extinction in 2009. It tastes ever sweeter given the fact they were knocked out of the Europa League in the playoff round the season before. That was only their second European campaign since 1981 and the thought of away days like this were snatched away from them at the final hurdle.

Then again, it could be a lot worse.

“I was talking to people and asking, what was our lowest point? Before the start of that 2009-10 season we had -10 points and no owners and were going to places like Rochdale and Hartlepool. Now we are in Milan and we are going to Prague. It’s incredible. It’s been a journey,” said Rich Caddick with a wide smile on his face.

Milan’s three airports — Linate, Malpensa and Bergamo — were packed with smiling Saints fans as they streamed in on journeys across from England. Some caught trains from Switzerland and neighboring Italian cities and some even traveled from New York City and other far flung destinations for this game. Many would stay for days after the game and some arrived early this week.

Everywhere you looked old friends were bumping into each other in bars and squares and for a few days Sotonians felt at home in Milan.

The contrast between the traveling band of supporters and the Milanese businessmen and women was stark. In amongst people dripping with Louis Vuitton and Prada were Saints fans tucking into a slice of Pizza with a pint in one hand and belting out a song.

On game day well over 7,000 Saints fans descended on Milan as tales of supporters buying corporate tickets and tickets in the home end filtered through. It felt like a lot more than 7,000. A lot more. From the square around the Duomo Cathedral in central Milan to the bars lining the Navigli Canals in the south of the city, red and white stripes were everywhere.

Before the match the plea from fans was simple: “Play the strongest team. This is it. This is the game we care about.”

A victory would give Southampton one foot in the Europa League knockout rounds in their first-ever appearance in the Europa League group stage. That didn’t happen with Charlie Austin, Steven Davis, Jose Fonte and Nathan Redmond not in the starting lineup.


The first time you walk up to the San Siro, it takes your breath away.

Especially on a foggy evening where the upper reaches of the iconic venue are shrouded in mist. It all added to the occasion.

Inside the stadium the crowd of just under 30,000 was made up almost one quarter Southampton fans.

They didn’t stop signing all night long.

To put this feat and occasion into American sporting terms, it is like a small college basketball team getting to the Sweet 16 and playing a powerhouse school at an iconic venue. It was a case of small town against big town. A small, yet proud, club against one of the biggest on the planet. We could keep going on with the comparisons but you get it. The stature of the two sides on the global stage is vastly different.

It’s not David vs. Goliath but Thursday’s game was a situation Saints’ fans never thought they’d be in.

“In 2008 we were thinking we were going to lose our club and all of a sudden we are now in the San Siro. It’s amazing,” lifelong Saints fan Karen Arkell said. “There are Saints fans who would have never experienced anything like this and there are younger a generation coming through who are getting used to it.”

The game itself saw Saints throw everything at Inter but somehow fail to score. From Jay Rodriguez’s early miss to James Ward-Prowse‘s shot which whistled wide, then both Charlie Austin and Virgil Van Dijk had two great chances to score but Samir Handanovic, Inter’s goalkeeper, was the clear man of the match as his manager Frank de Boer saluted him after the game.

At the final whistle Southampton’s fans were deflated. Down but not out was the message as their quest to reach the knockout rounds of the Europa League and continue this European adventure carries on.

The singing carried on, both at the final whistle (see below) and all over Milan as a mood of celebration was still around (along with a tinge of disappointment) as the cool Milanese air felt a little chillier than it would have had Saints secured a famous win.

“I am absolutely gutted. We could have had them. We should have won,” Gray reflected. “We just need to invest in putting those chances away. It put a little dampener on the mood after the game but at the end of the day, we are still here. There’s progress and we are enjoying that. The atmosphere was awesome. Better than any Saints game I’ve ever been to.”

The fact that pretty much every Saints fan was “gutted” at losing 1-0 to Inter Milan at the San Siro says it all. They’ve come a long way in a very short space of time.

“It’s just surreal,” said Wolfe and McManus said again as they sat in a trendy bar near Navigli Grande as Saints fans mixed with locals.

Speaking after the game several players saluted the supporters with captain for the night Virgil van Dijk perfectly summing up the emotions from everyone connected with the club.

“I’m so proud to be a Southampton player with those supporters. They deserved more and so did we.”

MILAN, ITALY - OCTOBER 20: (L-R) Jeison Murillo of FC Internazionale competes for the ball with Virgil Van Dijk of Southampton FC during the UEFA Europa League match between FC Internazionale Milano and Southampton FC at Giuseppe Meazza Stadium on October 20, 2016 in Milan, . (Photo by Pier Marco Tacca/Getty Images)


As strong coffee was sipped readily on Friday morning along Milan’s busting streets after a few days of celebrating Saints’ resurgence which culminated in this game, there was a realization that this may be as good as it gets.

Two mid-size teams in the Premier League, Southampton and Leicester City, are both in the group stages of Europe courtesy of their unexpected top six finishes last season. But with perennial powers strengthening this season, it will be a lot tougher to reach this tournament for the foreseeable future.

“This year with so much investment at Everton and teams like Chelsea and Liverpool improving, we won’t finish in the top six. I’m sure,” Gray said, reluctantly. “This is here for us to enjoy. This is it. Until the next time…”

Until the next time arrives (if it does at all), Saints’ fans will follow their team wherever they go. Do fans of the smaller clubs appreciate these occasions more?

“I think they appreciate it more than big clubs,” Saints fan Rob Peters said as the sun shone down on his red baseball cap. “We may not be in Europe for another few years. The big clubs take priority, so, as Saints fans, we have to just go for it.”

Ruddick agreed.

“Big clubs do it every season. They take it for granted,” Ruddick said. “They know they are going to come away again next year. We don’t. So we make the most of it while we can.”

Now they’ve had a taste, Saints feel like they belong at this level.

Flicking through Gazzetta Dello Sport on Friday, the player ratings showed that Saints’ team ranked higher than Inter, as did the manager, and the man of the match was Inter’s goalkeeper. Little Southampton went to the San Siro and roughed up the 18-time champs of Italy, who were scratching their heads as to how they won.

“For a game that wasn’t so crunch — last night’s game wasn’t so important in the grand scheme of things, really — for a game like that, the atmosphere was unbelievable,” Gray admitted. “Everyone was right behind them. We’ve had a great few days and we couldn’t have asked for anything else… Other than a win.”

With home games against Inter and Hapoel Be’er Sheeva and a trip to Prague in late November (Saints only have 1,700 tickets for that game, which they’ve already sold out, but speculation says that double that are amount are expected to make the trip), everything is to play for in Group K with just three points separating first from fourth. Can Saints make it through to the knockout rounds as one of the top two teams?

“I’m a little bit nervous about it now after last night,” Peters admitted. “If we lose the next game at home against Inter we are in a little bit of trouble. We are good enough to go through. That’s for sure. We totally dominated them last night.”

There was a lingering feeling of what could’ve been (the amount of Saints fans I heard say ‘I just wanted to see us score at the San Siro’ was outrageous) among supporters but tales of parties in night clubs, bars and elsewhere long into Thursday  night and Friday morning were rife.

“People were definitely deflated after the game but then we left the stadium, we got back into the city and then just kept singing in the pubs… Until five o clock this morning!” Caddick laughed. “The whole experience was the most important thing.”

MILAN, ITALY - OCTOBER 20: Charlie Austinof Southampton FC disapponited during the UEFA Europa League match between FC Internazionale Milano and Southampton FC at Giuseppe Meazza Stadium on October 20, 2016 in Milan, . (Photo by Pier Marco Tacca/Getty Images)
(Photo by Pier Marco Tacca/Getty Images)

This experience will never leave Saints’ fans and players. It is something few clubs of their size get to taste and it was a moment to savor.

Can it happen again? Can Saints’ qualify for Europe by finishing in the PL’s top six this season?

“It is just beautiful,” Gray said as he looked along a busy side street ahead of his girlfriend flying out to meet him for a quick vacation until next Tuesday. “The atmosphere has been great. It is just great to be here and now we wait for the next one.

When that next one is, we will have to wait and see. Fans are already signing about making their way to Stockholm, Sweden, where the Europa League final is being held on May 24, 2017.

Although that may be a tad hasty, Southampton’s trip to Milan showed the team from the biggest city on the south coast of England is ready for the biggest of stages.

With fans landing back home, the home game St Mary’s against Inter Milan in two weeks sold out early on Friday morning.

Europa League fever continues to grip Southampton and their fans don’t want it to end.

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Injuries to key Premier League cogs could open door at top of table

WEST BROMWICH, ENGLAND - OCTOBER 15:  Toby Alderweireld of Tottenham Hotspur is stretched off injured  during the Premier League match between West Bromwich Albion and Tottenham Hotspur at The Hawthorns on October 15, 2016 in West Bromwich, England.  (Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)
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A pair of important yet relatively unsung players could make things interesting at the top of the table this weekend.

Tottenham, sitting third in the Premier League standings, travel to Bournemouth in an early Saturday game without critical defender Toby Alderweireld.

The 27-year-old Belgian is the Premier League’s newest Iron Man, having played every single league minute for the club since he joined in the summer of 2015, a massive string of 46 matches that ended this past weekend when he was forced off after an hour against West Brom with a knee problem.

[ WATCH: Stream all 10 games in Week 9 of Premier League action ]

Alderweireld’s injury was a let-off, with the club initially fearing worse but scans midweek showed no lasting damage. However, he has been ruled out for this weekend, and for the first time Mauricio Pochettino will have to craft a teamsheet without his most reliable player. Pochettino moved Eric Dier back to central defense for the midweek match against Bayer Leverkusen, but with Dele Alli and Victor Wanyama teaming up to replace Dier in front of the back line, Spurs struggled to create much of anything and were ultimately lucky to find themselves with a point from a 0-0 draw.

Should Pochettino wish to return Dier to the defensive midfield so as not to lock his more creative players down, he could use 22-year-old Kevin Wimmer to deputize at central defense. The Austrian defender has made just 10 Premier League appearances for Spurs, all coming in a row last season during a spell without Jan Vertonghen, a spell which saw the club register seven wins and a single loss conceding seven goals.

A kick to the heel of Santi Cazorla could leave him on the sidelines against Middlesbrough (Photo by Mike Hewitt/Getty Images).
A kick to the heels of Santi Cazorla midweek could leave him on the sidelines against Middlesbrough (Photo by Mike Hewitt/Getty Images).

Just a single place above Spurs in the Premier League table sits Arsenal who face a similar situation. Santi Cazorla, the often unsung midfield playmaker in a squad among more flashy stars, will potentially miss this weekend’s date with Middlesbrough thanks to an Achillies problem he suffered after being kicked by a Ludogorets player in the midweek Champions League match. With Granit Xhaka suspended and Aaron Ramsey also injured, the Arsenal midfield is looking relatively thin, but none of those other misses bear similar to that of Cazorla’s.

Cazorla has yet to return to his stunning form from two seasons ago, with injuries having derailed his consistency since, but he still remains a key part of the Arsenal machine. The Spaniard has started every Premier League match this season but one, mostly back in a deeper midfield role, pushed back alongside a defensive midfielder thanks to the form of wingers Alex Iwobi and Theo Walcott. Without Cazorla, Francis Coquelin and Mohamed Elneny will be forced into the side. Coquelin started the season in poor form and has seen less of the field since, while Elneny has been a squad player since joining in January.

The deeper role has seen Cazorla’s productive numbers decline, with Mesut Ozil’s creativity now front and center, but the 31-year-old’s importance as the link between back and front remains strong, with a 91% passing accuracy through the season’s first eight matches. Elneny and Coquelin will have to figure out a way to recreate Cazrola’s ability to push the team forward to break down Middlesbrough’s stout defensive shape.

[ MORE: JPW gives his picks for this weekend’s Premier League games ]

Lastly, Chelsea is looking resurgent this season under Antonio Conte, and while not injury related, they could be without a similarly productive piece for this weekend’s massive matchup with Manchester United. One of the only bright spots in Chelsea’s lost season last year, Willian has maintained his ability to produce from the edge this season , but could be sidelined on Sunday due to the loss of his mother.

Through eight matches this season, the Brazilian has concocted 23 chances for his teammates, a stunning rate that has him third in the Premier League despite having missed two of those eight games. Should he continue this pace, Willian would end up with 110 chances created this season, a number that would have sat him second last season behind just Mesut Ozil’s 125.

Last time out, Chelsea didn’t miss Willian against a shell-shocked Leicester City side that seemed to unravel after Diego Costa‘s seventh-minute goal, but against Manchester United it seems unlikely that Marcos Alonso and Victor Moses could again fill the shoes of the Brazilian. With Oscar also possibly out, Conte will need to rely even more on his outside backs in the attack, leaving the wings potentially exposed to the likes of Juan Mata, Marcus Rashford, Ashley Young, and Jesse Lingard.

The top of the table is suffering from some important losses, and those could see chaos reign this weekend.

On-loan Manchester United striker James Wilson suffers ACL tear

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - MAY 06:  James Wilson of Manchester United celebrates scoring the second goal during the Barclays Premier League match between Manchester United and Hull City at Old Trafford on May 6, 2014 in Manchester, England.  (Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images)
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James Wilson‘s loan spell at Derby County has likely been cut brutally short.

Having made just four league appearances for the Rams since being loaned to the Championship side from Manchester United this summer, the 21-year-old ruptured his anterior cruciate ligament in training on Monday, and has since seen the damage confirmed by tests.

The club announced the injury on Friday, with manager Steve McClaren saying in a statement, “It’s incredibly disappointing news that James has suffered an injury like this. Only last week I was saying how much I was looking forward to working with him because he is an exciting young talent. I know that he will bounce back from this disappointment, especially as well as being a very good player he is also a strong and determined character.”

It’s possible that Wilson misses the entire rest of the season due to the injury, although a six-month layoff would see him able to possibly return by late April.

Of Wilson’s four league appearances for Derby, he started in three of them but failed to log more than 65 minutes in any game. He did not score across those four appearances, although he did net for the club’s academy side in an EFL trophy match with Doncaster in early October.

Wilson has made 20 appearances across all competitions for his parent club Manchester United, scoring a brace against Hull City in his Premier League debut in May of 2014. However, he has not appeared for the Red Devils in nearly two years, instead seeing time on loan at Brighton Hove & Albion for much of last season before moving to Derby before the season. Wilson’s loss is a big one for the Rams, who are struggling in 20th place in the Championship table after narrowly missing out on a chance at promotion each of the past three seasons.