Premier League Supporters: The dramatic rise of Southampton FC and their fans

3 Comments

Adam Lallana knows Southampton and its fans better than most.

“When you’re at home and you’ve got a great backing, it’s brilliant. And when you go on the road and you can hear your fans signing it’s what you want as a player. It’s credit to the fans who stuck by us when we were in League One and on the brink of liquidation. It’s good that the fans stuck with us, and now they’re seeing us playing week in, week out, in the Premier League.”

Lallana, 25, is the captain of Saints’ first team. He’s been at the club since the age of 12 and has risen through the academy ranks after being part of Southampton’s painful descent to the foot of England’s third-tier in 2009… and the dramatic rise to fourth place in the Premier League today.

After the first seven games of the 2013-14 PL season, Saints have won four, drawn two and lost one. They have the league’s best defense, conceding just twice, and play an exciting style of high-pressure soccer with a talented group of young players.

Having this PL success so soon after the club’s 125-year plus history was in considerable doubt, is remarkable. The dramatic rebuild has been thanks to a huge cash injection after being saved from liquidation by the Markus Liebherr, who sadly passed away in 2010, and executive chairman Nicola Cortese. The latter has astutely, yet sometimes controversially, put the interests of the club first. Such as replacing the clubs famous red and white stripes with bright red shirts, and other acts that have tinkered with Saints’ traditions.

Despite the ups and downs, the uncertainty and the ecstasy and many thinking Southampton had disappeared from the soccer world for good, the fans, they never disappeared. A feel-good factor is rapidly taking over the City of Southampton on England’s South Coast, and the passionate fans who call the famous Maritime port home are thinking big after the clubs tremendous start to the current PL campaign.

RAPID ASCENT: LEAGUE ONE TO PREMIER LEAGUE IN TWO SEASONS

When Southampton take on Manchester United Saturday at Old Trafford, (10 am ET, watch live on NBCSN or online via NBC Sports Live Extra) the Saints are looking to create a seven-point lead over United and take the top spot in the Premier League. For the record, every Saints fan I spoke to is predicting either a win or draw against United.

But the fact is, Southampton haven’t won at Old Trafford since 1988 in the league. In their last 18 league visits to United they’ve lost 16 and drawn just twice. It’s not been a happy hunting ground. But as their terrific early season form proves, confidence is high on the South Coast.

source:
Southampton’s are having a wonderful start to PL season. Can they continue it against Manchester United?

Many Southampton fans are pinching themselves, as the rapid ascent from League One basement boys to slugging it out with England and Europe’s big boys has all happened rather quickly. Over three seasons, to be precise.

“I was outside the stadium speaking to the media and others, waiting for the club to die back in 2010 when we went into administration,” Mike O’Callaghan, a lifelong Saints fan and chairman of the Southampton Independent Supporters’ Association (SISA) said. “Then the Liebherr family and Cortese saved us right at the death. That’s when the feel good factor came back to the club. We are a decent sized club, but to go up two years in a row was like, ‘blooming heck’…  it was totally unexpected.”

Last season was Saints’ first campaign back in the top-flight since being relegated in 2005 — they’d previously spent 28 uninterrupted campaigns with England’s elite — and Southampton consolidated, finishing comfortably in 14th.

With ambitious owners and revolutionary Argentine manager Mauricio Pochettino in charge, Saints fans of a younger generation are starting to get starry-eyed. Nick Illingsworth is one of the older generation of Saints fans, who has been an almost semi-autonomous spokesperson for Southampton fans at every major flashpoint in recent years. He also runs a hugely popular Saints fanzine, The Ugly Inside, which has been around since 1988.

“There is a new optimism,” said Illingsworth with a sense of excitement. “Those supporters under the age of 20 have a belief that Saints can get into Europe and that the sky’s the limit. But an older generation like myself, we have a more pragmatic approach. We only got relegated eight years ago from the PL, but someone who is 18 has only known failure as we dropped down the leagues and into administration,  and then… success. So for them, the sky’s the limit.”

A FEW BEERS, THE GAME, A SING SONG, AN INQUEST, MORE BEER, CONTINUE…

Success and stardom may be swirling round the heads of most Southampton fans as we speak, but the match day routine for many Saints fans hasn’t differed whether they’re playing Chelsea or Colchester United.

Fans will often congregate in City Center pubs, then stroll through the bustling streets of Saturday afternoon shoppers to get to St. Mary’s Stadium in time to belt out “Oh when the Saints go Marching in” and sing about their hatred towards close rivals Portsmouth. (We could write a book on that)

“We still do the old traditional thing,” O’Callaghan said. “We met up at noon before every home game, have a couple of jars before the game, sit down and watch the match at St. Mary’s. Obviously if we’ve had a few beers we loosen up and lose our inhibitions, so you get more involved in the game and show your passion with the singing. Half time comes and there may be an inquest as to what’s going on in the game, then full time comes and recently, more often than not, we celebrate. We are very happy bunnies at the moment, it’s a good time to be a Saints fan.”

To paint the picture on game days, there is no real organization of flags, banners or singing. Unlike the massive Supporters Groups in Portland or Seattle in Major League Soccer, Saints fans go to watch the game and absorb themselves in the 90 minutes of action, they don’t prepare tifos, have any capos or set off any flares. As I walked around St. Mary’s on one of my many previous visits, small St. George’s cross flags hung up from the concourse entrances. “Scandinavian Saints” reads one, “Pride of the South” reads another. The singing comes on spontaneously, it isn’t scripted. And if Saints’ players and the manager aren’t doing a good job, the fans let them know.

Guly, you’re shit,” exclaims one Southampton fan, standing up and pointing his finger acrimoniously at Saints’ 31-year-old Brazilian attacker. “You must be the only Brazilian who can’t play football,” he continued. Then he sits down calmly, takes a swig on his cup of tea and bites into his steak and kidney pie. Passionate, unorganized and totally encapsulated with the game, that is a typical Saints fan.

The anti-Portsmouth songs ring out around St. Mary’s on a Saturday afternoon, and despite Southampton’s success this season while their neighbors 17 miles down the South Coast struggle in the lower reaches of England’s fourth-tier, they’re never too far away from the minds of Southampton’s fans.

source: AP
Can the Saints continue their dramatic climb from the third-tier to deliver European soccer?

“Women come and go, but Saints will always be there,” O’Callghan said. “My ex-wife said ‘you love Saints more than you love me’ and I said… ‘I love Pompey more than I love you.’”

That gives you a quick intro into the animosity that exists between the two sets of fans…

WHAT FANS EXPECT IN 2013-14

Many teams can have a great start in the PL. Just look at West Bromwich Albion and Swansea City last season, which slipped away dramatically in the second half of the season. The hard part is keeping that run going.

Southampton splashed over $54 million this summer to sign Croatian international defender Dejan Lovren, Italian international striker Daniel Osvaldo and powerhouse midfielder Victor Wanyama from Celtic. Fans of the club are excited about the new additions, but realistic about what can be achieved.

Is qualification for European soccer possible?

“It’s attainable,” Illingsworth hesitantly said. “But it’s a harder job than people would think. It’s very difficult to get a European spot, you’ve got to say from where we’ve come it’s a bit of a fairytale. Is it attainable? Possibly.”

Steve Grant, who runs another fan website SaintsWeb, is a long-time fan who travels down to Southampton from London for the matches. Grant is a little more cautious, but believes a top ten finish is now what Saints should aim for.

“I think in the short term Champions League is completely out of the question,” Grant said. “Even a Europa League position through the league, over a 38-game season it’s going to be very difficult.”

And despite O’Callaghan’s brash positivity, he believes Saints can’t break into the top six just yet.

“I know the Liebherr family is worth over $7 billion,” he said. “But unless they want to go spending silly money like Manchester City and like Chelsea have done, I can see top six being as good as it gets.”

source:
Down on England’s South Coast, Southampton have the biggest stadium and biggest soccer brand south of London.

Likeable Saints fan O’Callaghan is known by many supporters around the ground on a match day, constantly greeting other ‘Saints’ with “how are you mate?” and “great to see you fella” as he strolls confidently through the concrete concourses of St. Mary’s. O’Callaghan has been traveling around to watch Southampton for decades and has been to 91 different soccer grounds in England supporting Saints. He represents the core of Southampton’s supporters, with the vast majority hailing from within the historic city limits.

“When we play the big clubs, we sing ‘we support our local team’ and we are proud to support our local team. We’re not jumpers on the bandwagon,”  O’Callaghan said furiously. “But I know people from Southampton who support Liverpool and clubs like that and they’re from Southampton and I can’t get my head around when Saints are playing Liverpool they are supporting the opposition against the city of their birth. That’s like being a traitor to me. That is being a traitor. What is wrong with your own local team? Most fans say ‘oh my granddad was a Liverpool fan, etc.’ That’s the biggest load of nonsense, have they not got their own brain? Support your local team.”

HOW SAINTS RELATE TO AMERICANS

For some people — I’m looking at you America — it’s not possible to support your local Premier League team, because, eh geography is kind of in the way.

Chances are if you live in the USA, until now you probably don’t know what color Southampton play in, where the city is located in England and their top five players of all-time. But that’s okay, you don’t need to.

source: Getty Images
Fans make their way to St. Mary’s on a match day.

With NBC Sports giving you access to every single PL game live this season — excuse me I’m just going to rest my trumpet down on the ground after that excessive celebratory blast — you can chose any team from across England to have as your own.

So, why Southampton?

“Southampton will appeal to the fans who identify their team with their city and community,” Illignsworth said. “Southampton will appeal to the people of Chicago, the people of Pittsburgh, Boston and Philadelphia. Working class cities that have a community feel.”

Illingsworth, who often travels to the U.S. for vacations and recently watched the NFL’s Saints kick off their season, believes the city of Southampton will resonate with fans of one team in particular.

“Southampton are probably the Chicago Cubs of soccer,” Illingsworth said. “They never really look like winning anything, but we’ve got this big fan base that turns up week in, week out and always has potential and those clubs appeal to people who identify with the triers. For people who like to see success built rather than bought.”

“THE ACADEMY OF FOOTBALL” – GIVING YOUTH A CHANCE

And that success is often built by investing in youth and giving it a chance to nurture at the professional level. If you like seeing teams develop young talent and give youth a chance, Southampton is right up your street.

Bale is the most famous name to come through Saints' academy.
Bale is the most famous name to come through Saints’ academy.

They’ve produced current England internationals Theo Walcott and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, not to mention Real Madrid superstar and the world’s most expensive player, Gareth Bale.

In the current team, captain Adam Lallana was called into the England squad last season, left back Luke Shaw is the most promising 18-year-old in English soccer, 18-year-old James Ward-Prowse scored his first goal for England’s U-21 side last week, Nathaniel Clyne has been around the England U-21 setup for many years and 18-year-old right back Calum Chambers is a star in the making.

The list continues, as Saints have an endless conveyor belt of talent rolling out of their Staplewood training ground tucked just inside the marvelous setting of the New Forest national park.

“I would say these days, our academy has no comparison,” Grant said. “I think Saints have now taken over the slogan, ‘the academy of football’ from the likes of West Ham who held that in the past. It very much applies to the ethos around the club now. Regardless of how much money the club’s spent, how many trophies you win, Southampton Football Club is still based in Southampton as a city and still has the support of the people of Southampton. As a result when one of your own breaks into the team, there’s always a greater sense of pride when that player then goes onto be successful.”

And Illingsworth believes the fact that Saints have always relied on youth players being core members of the first-team has enabled them to go on be stars.

“There is a pride,” Illingsworth said. “Even if someone isn’t born and bred in Southampton, there’s still that sense of pride that we’ve made them, we’ve drilled this Southampton thing into them. That’s why over the years people like Matt Le Tissier never left the city.”

A CITY ENCAPSULATED BY THE SAINTS

With a population of around 300,000 and sitting all alone as the only Premier League club south of London, the City of Southampton is somewhat cut off from the rest of England’s soccer fraternity.

source: Getty Images
Fans pay homage to a statue of Mr. Southampton, Ted Bates, before every home game by tapping it for luck.

But that only makes the bond between the club and its supporters stronger.

“With Southampton there’s a community spirit,” Illingsworth said. “If you walk along anywhere in the world and you see a guy wearing a Saints shirt, you stop and speak to him. Because you know you’re going to have something in common. 10 years ago I went to watch the New York Rangers in Madison Square Garden and at the end of the game a guy walks towards me wearing a Saints shirt. I didn’t know him but we had a chat and that’s the type of community spirit Southampton has. You don’t get that from Chelsea, United or Arsenal where the supporters are drawn from a far wider area. It’s not just a pride in the team but a pride in the area and your home city.”

When you walk around and look at the history on every street corner, it makes you realize just how long soccer has been engrained into the minds of the people in Southampton. The club has been around for 128 years, which is a long, long time. But in comparison to the city itself, it’s a baby. Starting off as a Roman settlement named “Clausentum” in AD 43, it soon became a massive medieval port with strong links to France across the English Channel. Today, many of the medieval walls and ruins still remain throughout the newly constructed city that was heavily bombed in World War II. And it was from Southampton that the Titanic made it’s fateful voyage, with many of the city’s streets affected by the deaths of over 700 Sotonians on board The White Star Line’s luxury liner. Now it’s rich shipping heritage sees it dubbed ‘the capital of Europe’s Cruise line industry’ and it boasts the UK’s largest container port.

The city is thriving, and Southampton FC’s successful ascension towards the summit of English soccer has had a lot to do with that.

Crowds are averaging over 30,000, with money, sponsorship and new exposure coming to the city thank to Saints’ success. But some fans aren’t exactly bowled over by the side effects of being back in the PL.

“You’re going to get your ‘Johnny come lately’s’ I call them ‘Bandwagon United,’” O’Callaghan laughed. “They come along to watch Wayne Rooney and Steven Gerrard, you get that. And that has to do with the price of football and being back in the Premier League. Those kind of fans are pushing the real fans out of the stadium. Which isn’t right.”

ONLY BIG DREAMS… POCHETTINO’S REVOLUTION

Ultimately Southampton’s fans are feeling the pinch in their pocket as the club continues to hike up season ticket prices as demand for seats is increasing, and talk of expanding the 32,000 capacity stadium to over 40,000 rumbles on.

Right now the fans don’t mind shelling out a few extra ‘quid’ here and there… because their team has been relatively successful.

Pochettino has led Saints to new heights.
Pochettino has led Saints to new heights.

A few years ago, back in my heyday as an athlete at college, there was one slogan the administration was always throwing round to try and inspire athletes: “Only Big Dreams.” Like the average pretentious upstarts, we raised our eyebrows and muttered ‘yeah, yeah’ under our breaths.

But when I recently went along to speak with Southampton’s manager Pochettino, he had that same mentality, that same “dream big”

outlook, and shrugged his shoulders nonchalantly when asked if Southampton can reach the top six and beyond. Instead of Europa League dreams, Pochettino is “aiming for the Champions League.” If you set the bar high, ultimately lesser accomplishments are still hugely impressive.

That seems to be what Pochettino is doing.

“The work that’s been happening for the last four years, started with the chairman,” Pochettino said. “His vision for the club and the way he started building the future of the club, the ideas, the philosophy. The basic idea is to take the club to the top of the league and Europe. That’s our ambition.”

From League One to the Champions League in less than five years wouldn’t just be a “Big Dream” it would be a miracle. The chairman Mr. Cortese, who was lambasted by plenty of Saints fans I spoke to when writing this story, has been ruthless in his aim to get Saints challenging with the big boys of England. He’s on his way to achieving that, but can they now make a splash in Europe over the next few years?

Pochettino’s well-drilled charges have got Saints’ fan dreaming again.

With a squad full of internationals, huge investment from the owners in the transfer market and a hungry manager implementing revolutionary high-pressure tactics that are taking the PL by storm, Southampton are on the cusp of something big. A few more steps in the right direction and the growing promise could become sustainable.

Recently I went to check out what all the fuss was about. Pale purple and red skies hung over St. Mary’s Stadium down on the banks of the River Itchen on a chilly evening as summer turned to fall, I was amongst a small crowd watching Saints take on Bristol City in a League Cup game in September. When the team sheet was handed to me and I looked down the list, it was a completely different starting XI than the team that had just beaten Liverpool 1-0 at Anfield a few days previously.

It included the likes of Uruguayan international Gaston Ramirez, Japanese internationals Maya Yoshida and Tadanari Lee, Northern Ireland captain Steven Davis and many other players that would have been nailed on starters for Saints last season in the PL. Now, they’re effectively a reserve squad, albeit it a reserve squad full of internationals. The strength in-depth is getting there, and Saints could certainly go deep in the League Cup and FA Cup on that showing with a strong second XI dominating.

Wanyama is one of the new faces helping Southampton push on.
Wanyama is one of the new faces helping Southampton push on.

The thing that strikes you about visiting St. Mary’s is the large band of supporters who stand, and refuse to sit when directed by stewards, at the Northam End of the stadium. Situated next to the segregation with the away fans, fans at the Northam end are the heart and soul of Saints’ home support. All the chants emanate from this section of the stadium behind the goal, and when Saints players score at that end, they often run to the Northam to revel in the delight. There’s a mix of red and white shirts scattered amongst the Northam, but mostly you’ll find middle-aged men in denim already a few beers deep and smoking a cigarette. This is where Southampton’s average working class man, with strong connections to the City’s docks, chooses to watch the game. No bullshit, no flags, nobody telling him what to do. Just watching the game, singing his heart out and hoping and praying Saints can keep their good run going.

The fans are impressed at how seamless the transition has been since Pochettino’s controversial arrival, following the sudden sacking of favorite Nigel Adkins who orchestrated two-straight promotions from League One. But Argentine Pochettino has taken things to the next level.

“It is attractive football, I know the guy is Argentinian and he’s earned his living in Spain as a manager, but what he’s done, you can’t knock it,” O’Callaghan said. “Saints improved after he came in last season, and considering this guy came in and didn’t speak the lingo and introduced a new system, the players adapted very quickly. They must have a lot of respect for him, they’re playing for the manager.”

LOYAL SUPPORT, PRIDE AND PASSION PREVAIL

source: Getty Images
Saints’ huge band of away fans celebrate Dejan Lovren’s winner against Liverpool.

As aforementioned, Southampton is tucked away down on the English Channel over an hour and a half south of London by car. It’s hard for their traveling band of supporters to get to stadiums across the length and breadth of England.

But they do so in their droves.

Since promotion back to the top flight last season, almost every single away game has seen a sold out Saints section, and the tickets to Saturday’s game at Old Trafford against Manchester United sold out weeks in advance. That isn’t lost on manager Pochettino, who’s astonished by the huge numbers of supporters Saints take to far flung corners of the country.

“The away fans, the 2,000 or 3,000 fans that are with us every single game, we really appreciate their support,” Pochettino said puffing out his cheek in amazement. “Yes, I’ve been very surprised from the away fans. We really want to thank them and congratulate them for that continued support that they give us. We know how hard it is, and how much of an effort they make to come to those games. What I really want from the fans is that they’re supporting the club. That they’re always cheering on and supporting the players, the club itself and to enjoy how we play.”

That massive traveling support shows the willingness of fans to support their local team and represent the city in other parts of England.

And O’Callaghan believes the pride Saints fans have is stronger than ever.

source: Getty Images
Fans applaud Adam Lallana as he scores Southampton’s opener vs. Swansea.

“I have always been proud to be a Saints fan, but I’m even prouder at this moment of time because of where we are right here, right now,” O’Callaghan said with a lump in his throat. “In our wildest dreams, if someone said to us five years ago when we were in the third tier that we’d now be fourth from top in the PL of England, one of the richest leagues in the world, people would think you’re hitting the bottle a little bit too much. We are where we are on merit. You can only be proud of that and also proud of the people at Southampton Football Club who’ve put us in that position.”

That sense of togetherness between the fans and Saints’ players has been growing since the struggles of administration and relegation to League One. Star striker Rickie Lambert, goalkeeper Kelvin Davis, defender Jose Fonte, midfielders Guly Do Prado, Morgan Schneiderlin and captain Adam Lallana have all been on that journey with the fans, the backbone of the squad throughout the successful return to the PL.

Captain Lallana spoke to me about the special relationship between himself and the fans.

“I think I have a great relationship with the fans,” the skipper said with a smirk on his face. “I think I always have since I’ve been here, and I just love playing my football here, week in, week out. I have a really good relationship with the fans, always have and I always will.”

And to end our journey on the fans behind Southampton and what the ambitious club is all about, our friend Mike O’Callaghan can sum up exactly what it means to be from Southampton and support the Saints.

“Southampton is my team. I’ve got a tattoo right across my back that says Southampton FC and it’s written in olde English,” O’Callaghan said with intense emotion flowing through his southern English accent. “It took two hours to do, it has thirteen letters… and it bloody well hurt. But when I go on holiday, and I take my shirt off and I’m walking by the beach or the pool, people know where I’m from. I’m proud of where I’m from, and I love to let the world know as well.”

How important is Eden Hazard to Chelsea?

Getty Images
Leave a comment

Can Chelsea afford to lose Eden Hazard?

Hazard, 26, continues to be linked with a move to Real Madrid this summer for a potential world-record fee of over $125 million.

[ MORE: Conte hails Eden Hazard

This season the Belgian winger has been unplayable at times, particularly in recent months, and he is on the verge of leading Chelsea to a second Premier League title in the last three seasons.

Yet, with rumors of Hazard leaving Stamford Bridge persisting it is worth contemplating just how important he is to Antonio Conte‘s side despite the Italian claiming his star winger is “priceless” in a bid to wave off interest.

From a numbers perspective Hazard’s importance is clear. He has scored 11 PL goals and has four assists, with Diego Costa the only other Chelsea player to be involved in more goals with the Spanish international scoring 17 times and adding five assists. Beyond this season, Hazard has scored and assisted on more goals than any other current Chelsea player since he arrived in 2012-13.

There’s no doubting Hazard’s influence runs deeper than goals and assists.

When he picks up the ball defenders backtrack and even when they get close they have no idea which way Hazard will turn. The only way to try and stop him, as we’ve seen recently in their FA Cup quarterfinal win against Manchester United, is by hacking him down at every opportunity. With so much focus on stopping Hazard, the likes of Diego Costa, Pedro and Willian have been able to flourish and Conte reshaped his Chelsea side to a 3-4-3 with wing backs to get the best out of Hazard.

Hazard is back to his best with confidence flowing through his game just like it did in the 2014-15 campaign as he led Chelsea to the PL title and was crowned as the PFA Player of the Year.

However, there is a lingering sense that if Real Madrid did offer a huge sum of money this summer then perhaps Chelsea would accept the deal. Last season Hazard was way off the pace as Jose Mourinho’s time at Chelsea unraveled quickly and he was lambasted by fans as one of the star players who turned against the manager.

There’s no doubting Hazard is up there with N'Golo Kante and Costa as Chelsea’s top players this season but arguably he would be the most replaceable star. Without Costa’s goals and presence up top, Chelsea would be struggling. Without Kante’s incredible rate of interceptions and tackles in midfield, they’d be less effective in launching devastating counters.

When Hazard was missing through injury in Chelsea’s 2-1 win at Stoke in their last PL outing, Willian came into the team and scored a free kick and alongside Pedro they provided plenty of chances for Costa and others to score. Hazard wasn’t missed but there’s no doubting Chelsea is a better team when he’s in it.

On paper Hazard is entering the prime years of his career and perhaps the pull of Real Madrid could be too great if the Spanish giants do indeed intend to chase him hard in the summer. Of course, Real already have Cristiano Ronaldo, Gareth Bale and Karim Benzema up top but if the Zinedine Zidane’s side bought Hazard then he’d obviously start.

The only thing he has left to achieve with Chelsea is win the UEFA Champions League. Apart from that, he’s proven himself as one of the most dangerous players in the Premier League time and again.

It will be intriguing to see what happens with Hazard this summer.

Injuries, suspensions still an issue for busy Man United

Getty Images
Leave a comment

Manchester United have been struggling with suspensions and injuries and the international break hasn’t provided any respite.

[ MORE: United announce US tour dates ]

Both Zlatan Ibrahmovic and Ander Herrera are suspended for Saturday’s clash with West Bromwich Albion (Watch live, 10 a.m. ET online via NBCSports.com) at Old Trafford, plus Wayne Rooney, Paul Pogba, Phil Jones, Chris Smalling and Maroune Fellaini are all doubtful.

Jones injured his toe while on international duty as his United teammate Smalling tackled him in training, while Smalling has been spotted in a knee brace after picking up a knock in England’s win against Lithuania on Sunday. Fellaini also suffered a toe injury in Belgium’s draw with Greece on Saturday and has been released from international duty.

Rooney hasn’t played since the 1-1 draw with Bournemouth on Mar. 4 after suffering a training ground injury with Jones and Pogba limped off with a hamstring injury in United’s UEFA Europa League win against Rostov on Mar. 16.

Oh, Jose. When it rains it pours…

[ LIVE: Stream every PL game live

All of this injury news has been made more concerning given United’s busy month coming up as Mourinho’s men have nine games in April as they push hard to finish in the top four in the PL and reach the UEFA Champions League.

After the game against West Brom they face Everton at home and Sunderland away in a seven day stretch before heading to Anderlecht on Apr. 13 for the first leg of their Europa League quarterfinal. Sandwiched in-between their two games with Anderlecht they host Premier League leaders Chelsea and then finish off April with trips to Burnley and Manchester City before hosting Swansea City.

[ MORE: Premier League schedule

Mourinho will be hoping the vast majority of these players will be available for the busy stretch ahead as his large squad cope with a season-long struggle of juggling PL, domestic cup and European action.

Defensively he still has Marcos Rojo, Daley Blind, Luke Shaw, Antonio Valencia and Eric Bailly to slot in but he could be forced to draft in youngster Timothy Fosu-Mensah into midfield with so many games coming up in a short space of time.

United will be stretched to the limit as they aim to finish the season strong.

Lionel Messi suspended after abusing linesman

Getty Images
1 Comment

Argentina will be without five-time World Player of the Year Lionel Messi for their next four games.

[ LIVE: Stream every PL game live

On Tuesday FIFA announced that Messi, 29, has been suspended for four international game as the Barcelona forward was found guilty of verbally abusing an assistant referee in the second half of Argentina’s crucial 1-0 win against Chile last Thursday.

Messi, of course, scored the winning penalty kick in that game.

Messi — the captain of Argentina and their leading all-time goalscorer with 58 goals — will miss the game against Bolivia on Tuesday, plus Argentina’s friendly with Brazil this summer in Australia and also two key World Cup qualifiers against Uruguay and Venezuela in August and September.

Argentina currently sit in third-place in CONMEBOL qualifying for the 2018 World Cup in Russia, but are far from locks in their quest to qualify for the World Cup. That task has just got a lot harder after losing their talisman for sending verbal abuse at a linesman.

Look, it would be great to see abuse from players towards officials stamped out but how many times have we all seen players across the game screaming obscenities at officials in an aggressive manner? It seems like Messi may be a little hard done by and that FIFA has used the biggest name on the planet and made an example of him.

Below is the statement in full from FIFA on Messi’s suspension.

The FIFA Disciplinary Committee – in application of articles 77 a) and 108 of the FIFA Disciplinary Code (FDC) – has reached a decision in relation to the case of Lionel Messi following an incident that occurred during the match between Argentina and Chile on 23 March 2017 as part of the qualifying competition for the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™:

Footballer Lionel Messi has been found guilty of violating art. 57 of the FDC for having directed insulting words at an assistant referee.

As a result, Lionel Messi will be suspended for four official matches and sanctioned with a fine of CHF 10,000. The first match for which the sanction will apply is the next fixture in the preliminary competition of the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™ between Bolivia and Argentina, which will be played today, 28 March. The remainder of the sanction will be served over Argentina’s subsequent FIFA World Cup qualifying matches.

This decision is in line with the FIFA Disciplinary Committee’s previous rulings in similar cases.

Both the player and the Argentinian Football Association have been informed of the decision today.

After late goals broke Panama’s hearts in 2013, US returns

Getty Images
Leave a comment

PANAMA CITY (AP) With Panama about 90 seconds from reaching a playoff against New Zealand for a World Cup berth, Graham Zusi and Aron Johannsson scored in second-half stoppage time four years ago to give the already qualified United States a 3-2 win and eliminate the hosts.

“You felt this place dip,” Jozy Altidore recalled Monday. “You heard people crying.”

The U.S. will be back Tuesday night in a match that matters for both teams. The Americans routed Honduras 6-0 Friday at home and are looking for a second straight win in World Cup qualifying under coach Bruce Arena, who replaced Jurgen Klinsmann after an 0-2 start in the final round of the North and Central American and Caribbean region.

Before a light workout at Estadio Rommel Fernandez, American players thought the Panamanians might still have that 2013 match on their minds. Panama needed a win, but the late U.S. goals kept Mexico alive and El Tri went on to reach the 2014 tournament in Brazil. Panama has never advanced to the World Cup.

“If we were smart enough, we wouldn’t have broken their hearts. Pretty stupid, if you ask me,” Arena said humorously. “You think Mexico would have scored a goal at the end of that game?”

Panama opened the hexagonal, as the final round is called, with a 1-0 win at Honduras and a 0-0 tie at home against Mexico, and then lost 1-0 at Trinidad and Tobago. Five players from that 2013 loss to the U.S. were in the starting lineup for Friday’s defeat.

“It was obviously probably pretty devastating for the players,” said American midfielder Sacha Kljestan, also among those on the field that night. “I’m sure it still means a lot to them.”

Mexico leads the hexagonal with seven points, followed by Costa Rica with six, Panama with four and the U.S., Trinidad and Tobago, and Honduras with three each. The top three nations qualify for next year’s tournament in Russia, and the fourth-place team again goes to a playoff, this time against Asia’s No. 5 nation.

“The reality of the situation that we’re in and the reality of the start that we had is we’re not playing with house money,” U.S. captain Michael Bradley said. “We’re not in a situation where we can just say, great, we took our three points at home, whatever we get on the road is extra. No, we have to come here and take points. We want three. We’re going to play in a way that gives us a chance, a big chance to get three.”

LINEUP CHANGES

Arena predicted as many as four or five changes to his starting lineup. There will be at least two.

John Brooks will miss the match because of a sinus infection and Sebastian Lletget is out with a foot injury. The players who replaced them against Honduras could start, Tim Ream for Brooks in central defense and Alejandro Bedoya in place of Lletget in right midfield.

Jermaine Jones, back from a one-game suspension for yellow-card accumulation, could enter in a central midfield role, which would push Christian Pulisic to the left flank in place of Darlington Nagbe.

APPROACHING A RECORD

After scoring his second international hat trick Friday, Clint Dempsey has 55 goals, two shy of Landon Donovan’s American record.

“Yeah, it’s on your mind,” the 34-year-old Dempsey said. “But if it comes, it comes. If it don’t, it don’t.”

OLD FRIENDS

Panama goalkeeper Jaime Penedo, a holdover from the 2013 game, played for Arena on the LA Galaxy from 2013-15.

“Jaime Pinedo is one of the finest people I’ve ever met in the game,” Arena said. “We enjoyed him very much. Our fans loved him.”

WEATHER-WISE

After playing on a cool, damp night in the San Francisco Bay Area last weekend, the U.S. will deal with far different conditions. The game-time temperature is forecast to be 80 degrees with high humidity.

Panama’s players also may not be used to the heat, given some play in New York, Seattle, Toronto, Switzerland, Romania and other cool climates.