Can Southampton really break into the Premier League’s top four?

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A lot can happen in a year, just look at Southampton.

In November last season the Saints were languishing at the bottom of the Premier League table after their promotion from the Championship and had just five points from their opening 11 games.

On November 11 2013, they are third in the PL and have accumulated 22 points. They’re remarkably 17 points better off than they were last season, and there’s no doubt that the management, players and fans at St. Mary’s are dreaming of creating history.

Yes, they haven’t played many of the big teams yet. But they have beaten Liverpool 1-0 at Anfield and outplayed Manchester United at Old Trafford in a deserved 1-1 draw. The Saints have comfortably dispatched Crystal Palace, Fulham, Swansea and Hull at home and look the real deal as they surge forward, keep the ball and play an attractive attacking style of soccer that sees Pochettino lauded in his first full-season in charge after controversially replacing Nigel Adkins last season.

(MORE: Latest Premier League Standings)

What a great decision that looks to be now from Chairman Nicola Cortese. The Saints are marching on.

Following their 4-1 win over Hull City on Saturday, they sealed their best-ever start to a top-flight season. Last week Pochettino picked up the Barclays Premier League Manager of the Month award for October and three of the Argentine’s players were called up to the England squad, as inclusions for Rickie Lambert, Adam Lallana and Jay Rodriguez marked the first time since 1984 that three Saints players were involved for England at the same time.

(MORE: Maurico Pochettino aims for Champions League with Southampton)

The club is going through a golden period. Many fans down on England’s South Coast are rubbing their eyes in disbelief. A top-10 finish this season would have delighted many, now Southampton’s odds to win the title have been slashed to 150-1 after being 3,000-1 in many bookmakers over preseason.

As you can see from the multiple call ups, the benefits for the small club in Southern England succeeding in the PL is also boosting England’s hopes. At all age groups.

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The Saints are flying high, with talented youngsters and plenty of investment… the only way is up.

A conveyor belt of young English talent is rolling out of the Staplewood training ground as first-team regulars James Ward-Prowse and Luke Shaw, both teenagers, will play for the England U-21s this week. Three others will play for England’s U-19 side, and the likes of 22-year-old right back Nathaniel Clyne has been mentioned by England manager Roy Hodgson as “someone we’ve been monitoring closely.”

Three Lions boss Hodgson was on hand to see the Saints tear apart Hull in the first half last weekend, as Lambert smashed home a PK and Saints’ 24-year-old captain, and academy graduate, Lallana scored a wonder goal after a mazy run. The England boss couldn’t stop his wide grin growing as the game wore on. A quick chat with Saints Chairman Cortese was caught by the cameras, needless to say Hodgson likes what he sees from the Saints.

Are we surprised? Not really.

Over the years they’ve always been a breeding ground for top talent, with the likes of Matt Le Tissier, Alan Shearer and Wayne Bridge all developing their skills at Southampton. More recently Theo Walcott, Gareth Bale and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain have pushed Saints’ academy further towards the front of people’s minds and with the latest crops of youngsters now knocking on England’s national team door, more is to come.

(MORE Premier League Supporters – The dramatic rise of Southampton FC and their fans)

You can break down their tactics and how they’re outworking and dominating possession against every team they play this season, but the simple fact is that Southampton have continuity and a clear ideology that’s seem them rise from the depths of League One to the top of the Premier League in under three years. A past PL mainstay who went into a tailspin as financial ruin threatened to kill the club off, the Saints have performed one of the greatest rebuilds in recent English soccer history. Corteses and head of development Les Reed traveled around to the best academies in the world, including Barcelona’s La Masia, to see how they could improve Saints’ already impressive school of excellence. In January their new $45 million training complex will be finished and the club will be equipped to keep grinding out international stars of the future.

All those years when they churned out the likes of Walcott, Bale and Chamberlain but had to sell them while they were in the lower leagues are gone. Now the Saints hold on to their best youngsters, and England borrow them occasionally too. We will have to wait and see how long that will last, but the Saints certainly have strength in-depth as Northern Ireland captain Steven Davis, Uruguayan international Gaston Ramirez, talented England midfielder Jack Cork and Japanese internationals Tadanari Lee and Maya Yoshida can’t get anywhere near the starting lineup.

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Southampton and England’s Adam Lallana is leading their charge up the PL table as the Saints keep surprising everyone.

Whether they can make a sustained push for the top four, we’ll have to wait and see. But if they’ve got a chance when January rolls around, the Saints will spend big. They’re bankrolled by German construction company Liebherr and they were already the fourth-highest spending PL club during the summer transfer window.

But all of this wonderful youth development, fine PL displays and Champions League talk may stop in a few weeks time as after the international break they face Arsenal at the Emirates — a win for either side could see them top the table — and then Chelsea away the week after. If the Saints can pull off impressive results against those two PL powerhouses, we could even be talking about Pochettino’s youngsters as possible title contenders.

A year ago, who would have thought that?

La Liga: Sevilla win late to move even with Atletico Madrid in 3rd

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MADRID (AP) Wissam Ben Yedder scored three minutes after entering the game to give Sevilla a late 2-1 win over 10-man Celta Vigo in the Spanish league on Thursday.

The victory moved Sevilla even on points with third-place Atletico Madrid with four matches left. Third place guarantees an automatic spot in the Champions League next season, while the fourth-placed team has to go through a playoff.

Ben Yedder netted the winner from close range after a low cross by Samir Nasri in the 79th minute, beating a defender to the ball and hitting the top of the net with a right-footed shot.

“It was a complex game but the team was able to overcome the difficulties,” Sevilla coach Jorge Sampaoli said.

Joaquin Correa put the host ahead after halftime, and Iago Aspas equalized by converting a penalty kick just minutes later. Aspas did not celebrate the goal out of respect to fans of his former club.

Sevilla dominated from the start and was pressuring vigorously in search of the winner, especially after Celta went a man down when midfielder Pablo Hernandez was sent off with a second yellow card in the 56th with the game 1-1.

Sergio Escudero and Nasri each struck the crossbar a few minutes apart late in the second half, and Vicente Iborra also had hit the woodwork earlier in the game played under steady rain in Seville.

It was the third win in four matches for Sevilla after a streak of five games without a win.

Sevilla and Atletico are level on points, but the Madrid club is ahead on the head-to-head tiebreaker.

Top PL Storylines: Bye-bye, St. Totteringham’s Day? So long, Sunderland?

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Ahead of Week 34 of the 2016-17 Premier League season, we’re most looking forward to keeping an eye on the following storylines…

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Cancel St. Totteringham’s Day?

8,018 days (otherwise known as 22.9 years) have passed since Tottenham Hotspur last finished above Arsenal in the Premier League. First of all, that’s a lot of days. Secondly, the time to reset that clock is nearly upon us, as Tottenham take a 14-point lead into Sunday’s North London derby (Watch live, 11:30 a.m. ET, on NBCSN and NBCSports.com) — perhaps the final one to be played at White Hart Lane. With Arsenal having only five games left to play after Sunday, a 17-point deficit would be mathematically impossible to overcome, and would guarantee Spurs’ first PL finish above Arsenal since the spring of 1995.

The fact that Spurs could end that embarrassing, heinous streak in a game against Arsenal, in perhaps their next-to-last game at White Hart Lane, and maybe even close to within a single point of Chelsea in the title race… it’s almost all too timely and too perfect to believe it could really happen… to Spurs.


Finish the job

With all due respect to Middlesbrough (home), West Bromwich Albion (away), Watford (home) and Sunderland (home), Sunday’s trip to Goodison Park, where they’ve lost on their last two visits (all competitions) and they’ll take on seventh-place Everton (Watch live, 9:05 a.m. ET, on CNBC and NBCSports.com), is far and away the toughest remaining fixture on Chelsea’s schedule as they chase a fifth PL-era title (fifth in all eras). Having booked their spot in the FA Cup final by beating Spurs last weekend, Antonio Conte is dreaming of — and a favorite to win — a double in his first season at Stamford.


Someone has to finish top-four

Ahead of the weekend, two points separate Liverpool (third), Manchester City (fourth) and Manchester United (fifth), with Arsenal another four back in sixth (but possessing a game in hand). Given all the points dropped by each of the aforementioned sides in recent weeks, it’s important to remember that someone has to finish third and fourth in the PL this season.

We’ve already discussed Arsenal’s titanic task, so here’s the challenges facing the other three this round: Liverpool, at Watford (Monday, 3 p.m. ET, on NBCSN and NBCSports.com); Man City, at Middlesbrough (Sunday, 9:05 a.m. ET, on  NBCSports.com); Manchester United, vs. Swansea City (7 a.m. ET, on CNBC and NBCSports.com).


So long, Sunderland?

For five seasons now, Sunderland have flirted with relegation from the PL; and every previous season, they’ve pulled a rabbit out of the hat and managed to stay up. This season, though, under David Moyes, there appears to be no rabbit. With five games to go, safety is a whopping 12 points away, which means a loss to Bournemouth on Saturday (Watch live, 10 a.m. ET, on NBCSports.com), coupled with a win or draw by 17th-place Hull City, would officially send Sunderland to the Championship next season. If the Black Cats somehow find their way out of this predicament, a northeastern knighthood awaits Mr. Moyes.

French authorities investigating 2018, 2022 World Cup bids

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PARIS (AP) French financial prosecutors are investigating the bidding process for the 2018 and 2022 World Cups and have heard former FIFA president Sepp Blatter.

A person with direct knowledge of the investigation told The Associated Press on Thursday that France’s financial prosecutor services (PNF) opened the investigation on grounds of private corruption, criminal association, influence peddling, and benefiting from influence peddling relating to the 2018 and 2022 World Cups, which were awarded to Russia and Qatar respectively.

The person spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly about the case.

Blatter was questioned in Switzerland last week as a witness, the same person told the AP.

The office of the attorney general of Switzerland said in a statement that “at the request of and in the context of proceedings being conducted by French justice authorities, it has questioned Mr. Joseph Blatter in his capacity as a person providing information on the 20th April 2017 in Zurich.”

The PNF opened its investigation last year.

FIFA has also been targeted by investigations led by Swiss and US authorities. Last month, FIFA sent 1,300 pages of internal investigation reports into suspected bribery and corruption to Switzerland’s attorney general. The documents complete a 22-month probe by legal firm Quinn Emanuel, which FIFA retained in the fallout from United States and Swiss federal prosecutors revealing their sprawling investigations of soccer corruption in May 2015.

Blatter said last week that he met with U.S. Department of Justice investigators and insisted he was not a suspect in their bribery and corruption case linked to FIFA.

Blatter was suspended from office in September 2015 and later banned from soccer by the FIFA ethics committee.

Johannsson expected to leave Bremen this summer — is MLS next?

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Aron Johannsson’s time at Werder Bremen is all but finished, as the 26-year-old American-born, Icelandic-raised striker is expected to leave the club this summer after 22 months with Die Werderaner.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s USMNT coverage | MLS ]

Having failed to make much of an impact during his second season in the Bundesliga, following a few promising days early in the fall of 2015, the German press stated on Thursday, in no uncertain terms, “Aron Johannsson is leaving the northern club” — quotes from Kicker (translation courtesy of Google Translate):

In addition, Aron Johannsson is leaving the northern club. The US boy was not able to get through the hard competition in the storm, claimed more time, which can hardly be guaranteed in the next season. The fact that Baumann is already talking about finding a meaningful solution with the striker in the summer can be interpreted as follows: Johannsson will leave Werder.

Since various bits and pieces are lost in the above translation, allow us to offer a translation of the translation: the “hard competition in the storm” refers to the three or four strikers presently ahead of him in the pecking order. Johannsson fell down the depth chart due in large part to a hip injury which cost him the final seven months of last season.

Johannsson was recently quoted as saying, “It’s not my desire to leave, but at the end of the day it’s important that I play. I love football, but I need to play to be happy.”

[ MORE: John Brooks hip injury is worrying ahead of World Cup qualifiers ]

So, what’s next for Johannsson?

He can probably forget about a move to a top-division team in any of Europe’s premier leagues (England, Spain, Germany, Italy and France). A move back to Holland, where he starred at AZ Alkmaar (39 goals in 81 games) before moving to Bremen, would make sense if his goal is to stay in Europe at all costs. Another strong season (just a half, even) could earn him another shot with a first-division side roughly the size of Bremen.

Then, there’s MLS, which Johannsson’s been linked with before, and has publicly expressed a desire to join one day. As a current U.S. national team player, a move to MLS would mean a trip through the league’s allocation order for Johannsson. As of this posting, the Houston Dynamo hold the no. 1 spot in the allocation order, with Columbus Crew SC, San Jose Earthquakes, Minnesota United and Orlando City SC rounding out the next five.

[ WATCH: If you haven’t Darlington Nagbe’s latest golazo ]

Any team in MLS could land Johannsson by acquiring the top spot in the allocation order, via trade, and agreeing (what would almost certainly be) a Designated Player contract with him.

At the age of 26, Johannsson will likely feel there is still something left for him to accomplish in Europe. A strong showing in this summer’s Gold Cup (he’s a perfect candidate for Bruce Arena’s “B-team”) could open plenty of eyes — and doors. Money talks, though, just as the opportunity to be the face of the franchise and score a boatload of goals in MLS might also do.