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

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

3 Comments

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.

source: Getty Images
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.

source: Getty Images
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?

Watch Live: Watford vs. Everton (Lineups, Stream)

during the Barclays Premier League match between Watford and Everton at Vicarage Road on April 9, 2016 in Watford, England.
Getty Images
Leave a comment

Watford host Everton on Saturday at Vicarage Road (Watch live, 7:30 a.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com) in a battle between two teams hoping to get back on track.

WATCH LIVE ONLINE HERE

Both clubs will be eager to turn around their recent form which has seen Walter Mazzarri‘s Watford lose three of their last four Premier League games, while Everton has just one win in their last nine games in the Premier League under Ronald Koeman.

In team news Watford start Britos and Behrami as they return to the team, while Janmaat is back in the squad. Everton start Kevin Mirallas and Gerard Deulofeu out wide and Ramiro Funes Mori in central defense as Ross Barkley and Phil Jagielka drop to the bench.

LINEUPS

Watford: Gomes; Zuniga, Prödl, Britos, Holebas; Guedioura, Behrami, Capoue; Amrabat, Okaka, Deeney. Subs: Pantilimon, Kabasele, Janmaat, Watson, Success, Sinclair, Ighalo

Everton: Stekelenburg; Coleman, Williams, Funes Mori, Baines; Barry, Gueye, McCarthy; Mirallas, Lukaku, Deulofeu. Subs: Joel, Holgate, Jagielka, Cleverley, Barkley, Lennon, Valencia

Altidore earns U.S. Male Player of the Year honors, Pulisic wins Young POY

Toronto FC forward Jozy Altidore (17) reacts after scoring against the Montreal Impact during the first half of the second leg of MLS Eastern Conference championship series, in Toronto on Wednesday, Nov. 30, 2016. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press via AP)
Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press via AP
Leave a comment

While Jozy Altidore and his Toronto FC side have the chance to take home MLS Cup on Saturday night, the U.S. Men’s National Team forward earned an award of his own in the build up.

[ MORE: MLS commissioner Garber addresses expansion and more ]

On Friday night, U.S. Soccer named Altidore the federation’s Male Player of the Year for 2016, while Borussia Dortmund attacker Christian Pulisic has won Male Young Player of the Year honors.

Altidore takes home Male POY honors for the second time in his career after first winning the award back in 2013.

Altidore narrowly won POY honors with 32 percent of the vote, beating out Bobby Wood (30 percent) and Geoff Cameron (15 percent).

“This is truly an honor to receive this award. It’s also very humbling when you look at such a talented group of teammates nominated for this accolade along with you,” Altidore said. “At the end of the day, any success I have had on the field this year is in large part due to their success and contributions.”

The 27-year-old Altidore scored 10 goals for TFC during the regular season, before adding five goals and four assists for the MLS side ahead of MLS Cup. In his time with the USMNT, Altidore has netted six goals and two assists in 2016, leading all players.

Pulisic found the net three times this year for the USMNT, while excelling in the Bundesliga with Dortmund. The 18-year-old has made 15 appearances in all competitions this season for the German giants and scored two goals for Thomas Tuchel’s squad.

Russian official Mutko seeks to retain FIFA Council seat

MOSCOW, RUSSIA - OCTOBER 21: Deputy Prime Minister of the Russian Federation Vitaly Mutko attends at 'Vecherniy (Evening) Urgant' TV show on Channel 1 during FIFA 2018 World Cup Russia Official Mascot final choice event at Ostankino on October 21, 2016 in Moscow, Russia. (Photo by Getty Images/Getty Images)
Getty Images/Getty Images
Leave a comment

NYON, Switzerland (AP) Under fire for his role in Russia’s state doping program, Vitaly Mutko has begun the process of a FIFA integrity check to be an election candidate.

[ MORE: Can Spurs overcome their historic results form at Old Trafford? ]

Mutko, who heads Russian operations to organize the 2018 World Cup, has been elected by European soccer leaders since 2009 to represent them on FIFA’s ruling committee.

[ MORE: Man City visits Leicester with two sides on opposite ends of table ]

His FIFA seat is due for re-election in April, though potential candidates must pass a vetting and eligibility check by a review panel appointed by the world soccer body.

On Friday, Mutko was implicated in widespread evidence detailed by Canadian investigator Richard McLaren that he oversaw a state-backed doping program as sports minister.

Hours later, UEFA said Mutko was among five applicants for four vacant seats on the FIFA Council. The April 5 vote is by 55 European member federations.

Mutko has retained his FIFA positions and presidency of the Russian soccer federation since McLaren’s interim report was published in July.

The World Anti-Doping Agency then called on the FIFA ethics committee to investigate Mutko based on McLaren’s evidence.

The full investigation report release on Friday seemed to confirm that Mutko was asked to cover up a positive doping test by a Russian Premier League player from Uzbekistan.

Mutko was also implicated as sports minister in overseeing widespread doping programs of Russian athletes who competes at the 2012 London Olympics, 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics, and the 2013 track and field world championships, held in Moscow.

It is unclear if FIFA’s ethics committee has a mandate to prosecute non-soccer cases.

Asked on Friday if UEFA could launch its own investigation of Mutko, leaders of the European body deferred to FIFA’s ongoing vetting process.

“We have written to FIFA with the five potential candidates and the procedure is FIFA has to go through this eligibility check,” UEFA legal director Alasdair Bell said.

Bell acknowledged that the McLaren report “appears to contain some serious allegations” though noted that “these are contested.”

Three of Mutko’s long-standing colleagues are standing down from their FIFA Council seats from Europe: Michel D’Hooghe of Belgium, Senes Erzik of Turkey, and Marios Lefkaritis of Cyprus.

UEFA said the other election contenders are: Sandor Csanyi, a current UEFA executive committee member from Hungary; Geir Thorsteinsson, president of Iceland’s soccer federation; former AC Milan player Dejan Savicevic of Montenegro; and Costakis Koutsokoumnis, the Cyprus federation president.

Neymar out, Arda Turan has another chance for Barcelona

BARCELONA, SPAIN - DECEMBER 06:  Arda Turan of Barcelona (R) celebrates with Lucas Digne as he scores their second goal during the UEFA Champions League Group C match between FC Barcelona and VfL Borussia Moenchengladbach at Camp Nou on December 6, 2016 in Barcelona, .  (Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images)
David Ramos/Getty Images
Leave a comment

BARCELONA, Spain (AP) Fresh off scoring a hat trick, Turkey midfielder Arda Turan is hoping for another chance to prove he can play alongside Barcelona’s best.

[ MORE: Man City faces Leicester without Aguero, Fernandinho ]

With Neymar suspended for Saturday’s Spanish league match at Osasuna, Turan is likely to take his spot next to Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez in the defending champion’s vaunted attack.

[ MORE: Arsenal looks to continue unbeaten run against Stoke City ]

Turan filled in superbly for Neymar on Tuesday when he scored his first hat trick for Barcelona to lead the team to a 4-0 victory over Borussia Moenchengladbach in the Champions League.

The treble took Turan’s scoring total for the season to eight goals, making him Barcelona’s third-leading scorer behind Messi (20) and Suarez (12).

Even though nobody doubts Neymar is the more talented of the two, the Brazil striker has managed only six goals despite playing 400 minutes more than Turan this season.

Neymar’s suspensions from both the `Gladbach and Osasuna matches were for accumulation of bookings in both competitions.

“Arda is scoring lots of goals. When he plays on the wing he has many skills he can draw on,” Barcelona coach Luis Enrique said. “He can also play in midfield. I am happy for him.”

Turan, however, has proven to be a tough piece for Luis Enrique to fit into Barcelona’s talent-laden puzzle.

As his coach said, Turan has impressed on the left side of the attack. But that spot has Neymar’s name stamped on it, and Turan has struggled when asked to play further back.

While Turan flourishes when given space and the freedom to break down defenses, he looks uncomfortable in Barcelona’s demanding precision passing approach.

His unease with the defensive tasks that playing in midfield entails was clear in last weekend’s match against Real Madrid when Turan went on as a late substitute to help protect a one-goal lead.

Instead, Turan’s foul on Marcelo conceded a dangerous free kick that Luka Modric didn’t waste, placing a cross for Sergio Ramos to head in a 90th-minute equalizer and snatch a 1-1 draw that kept Madrid six points clear at the top of the Spanish table.

Turan took a lot of heat for that foul in the Barcelona sports media, meaning his three goals against `Gladbach couldn’t have come at a better time.

“We haven’t played well recently and haven’t gotten good results,” Turan said. “We tried to get the best possible result and play at our best (against `Gladbach).”

Now 29, Turan developed into one of the league’s top attacking midfielders through four seasons with Diego Simeone at Atletico Madrid, helping the once second-rate team become one of Europe’s best with league, Copa del Rey and Europa League titles.

But when Barcelona called in 2015, Turan changed clubs despite knowing that he couldn’t play until 2016 because of Barcelona’s FIFA-imposed one-year ban on new players for breaking its transfer rules regarding underage players.

The former Galatasaray standout also joined Barcelona well aware that competition for playing time, never mind a regular starting role, would be fierce with the likes of Messi, Suarez and, above all, Neymar.

After failing to find a spot following his debut midway through last campaign, Turan made a promising start to this season when Neymar was away playing for Brazil.

He scored twice in a Spanish Super Cup victory over Sevilla and notched Barcelona’s first league goal of the season. But once Neymar was back from helping Brazil win the Olympic gold medal, Turan was back on the bench.

[ MORE: Watford, Everton meet with both clubs looking to halt poor form ]

The reserve role clearly didn’t suit him. Only one of his goals this season has come as a substitute, when he sparked a 2-1 comeback at `Gladbach in September.

Unlike this week’s second win over `Gladbach, which came with Barcelona already qualified for the Champions League’s knockout rounds, Barcelona visits Pamplona on Saturday needing to break a run of three straight league draws.

Promoted Osasuna appears to be the optimum rival to end that skid. It is in last place and hasn’t won in seven home matches since its return to the first division.