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


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?

Serie A: Napoli make good on Juve’s slip-up, now just 2 back

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A roundup of all of Sunday’s action in Italy’s top flight…

[ MORE: Barcelona still unbeaten after 29 league games; Ronaldo scores 4 ]

Napoli 1-0 Genoa

Juventus slipped up in a big, big way on Saturday, stumbling to a scoreless draw away to tiny SPAL 2013, and opening the door ever so slightly for Napoli. With a win on Sunday, secured by Raul Albiol’s late winner, Napoli now trail Juve by just two points with the two sides level on games played (29) once again.

The victory snapped a two-game winless skid for Napoli, a run which saw them cough up the top spot which they had held for nearly the entire season, and set up perhaps a colossal title decider on April 22, when first hosts second in their quest to claim a seventh straight Serie A title.

Crotone 0-2 Roma

One spot and 14 points further down the table, you’ll find an interesting battle for third, with Roma picking up their third straight win, 2-0 over 18th-place Crotone on Sunday.

Stephan El Shaarawy (38th minute) and Radja Nainggolan (74th) bagged the goals for Roma, who lead Inter Milan by four points with nine games to go (Inter have a game in hand).

Sampdoria 0-5 Inter Milan

No one was more impressive this weekend than Inter, who put four past Sampdoria in the first half, including a hat trick from Mauro Icardi, who would then go on to add his fourth — Inter’s fifth — in the second half. That’s 22 league goals for the Argentine forward, who now trails Lazio’s Ciro Immobile by two in the Golden Boot race.

Elsewhere in Serie A

Lazio 1-1 Bologna
AC Milan 3-2 Chievo
Hellas Verona 0-5 Atalanta
Torino 1-2 Fiorentina
Benevento 1-2 Cagliari

La Liga: Barcelona unbeaten after 29 games; Ronaldo scores 4

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A roundup of all of Sunday’s action in Spain’s top flight…

[ MORE: Man United vs. Spurs in FA Cup semis; Chelsea-Southampton]

Barcelona 2-0 Athletic Bilbao

Updated numbers for Barcelona’s current unbeaten run in La Liga: 29 games this season; 36 dating back to last season. The quest for the unbeaten league season is now just nine games from reality.

Perhaps even more impressive than the W-D-L record is their defensive record: 13 goals conceded in 29 games (they’ve also scored 74 and have a +61 goal differential).

Sunday’s 2-0 victory over Bilbao saw Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Co., go 11 points clear in the title race and all but secure their third title in four seasons, thanks to results elsewhere (see below).

Paco Alcacer opened the scoring after just eight minutes, and Messi made it 2-0 right on the half-hour mark (his league-leading 25th goal of the season; 34 in all competitions).

Real Madrid 6-3 Girona

Cristiano Ronaldo bagged four goals of his own to bring his season total to 22 (32 in all competitions), now second ahead of Suarez and three behind Messi for the Golden Boot, and in the process push Real Madrid (60 points) to within four points of Atletico Madrid in the race for second.

Ronaldo scored goals no. 1, 2, 4 and 6 for Madrid, with tallies from Lucas Vazquez and Gareth Bale sprinkled in between.

Villarreal 2-1 Atletico Madrid

Atletico Madrid were the last side within touching distance of Barca — “just” eight points back coming into the weekend — but that’s no longer the case following a late collapse and a 2-1 defeat away to fourth-place Valencia.

Antoine Griezmann put the visitors ahead from the penalty spot in the 20th minute, but Enes Unal bagged an equalizer in the 82nd and the game-winner in the 91st. Atleti finished the game with 10 men after Vitolo was sent off in the 92nd minute.

Real host Atleti in the Madrid derby on April 8, a game which will go a long way towards crowning this season’s runners-up.

Elsewhere in La Liga

Valencia 3-1 Alaves (Saturday)
Leganes 2-1 Sevilla
Real Betis 3-0 Espanyol (Saturday)
Celta Vigo 0-0 Malaga
Real Sociedad 1-2 Getafe (Saturday)
Levante 2-1 Eibar (Friday)
Deportivo La Coruña 1-1 Las Palmas (Saturday)

FA Cup: Conte “pleased” by Chelsea’s rebound after CL defeat

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The mark of a truly great team is not only found in the number of trophies won, but how they bounce back from failure.

[ MORE: Chelsea drawn against Southampton in semis; Man United-Spurs ]

After bowing out of the Champions League at the hands of Barcelona on Wednesday, Antonio Conte‘s Chelsea could have gone one of two ways during Sunday’s FA Cup quarterfinal clash with Leicester City — and for the rest of the season, for that matter. When Jamie Vardy pulled Leicester back to 1-1 with fewer than 15 minutes until full-time, the Blues had a choice to make: keep fighting, or fold under (more) pressure.

[ MORE: Spurs advance to FA Cup semifinal | Man United join them ]

To their credit, they were undeterred and booked their place in the semifinals, where they’ll face Southampton, courtesy of Pedro‘s 105th-minute winner. Following the game, Conte was highly complimentary (by his standard) of his players — quotes from the BBC:

“A tough game but we knew this. The last game at home we suffer a lot against Leicester. We must be pleased today. I saw a good performance and great character from my team. After the game in the Champions League when we spent a lot of energy they showed good heart to beat Leicester.”

“When you arrive at this point, every game is difficult. They (Southampton) have just changed coach but now it is important to be happy and to go for another game at Wembley. We will try to do our best to reach the final. We want to give satisfaction to our fans.

“I think that for us our target is to try and do our best. To work hard with the players. I must be pleased with the commitment of the players. If you can win a trophy it is important for a team like Chelsea. But the most important thing is for us to fight until the end in every competition. We will try to reach the final.”

[ MORE: Southampton see off Wigan | Chelsea complete the final four ]

As for Pedro, he believes scoring a goal of Sunday’s import will do wonders for his confidence, which could prove a massive boon in Chelsea’s quest to overcome a five-point deficit and usurp fourth-place Tottenham:

“It was a very difficult game. It was good for me to score for my confidence and to get to the next round.

“It was hard to find the pass in between the lines. Leicester defended very well and pressed high. It is difficult to win against this team.

“The most important thing for us was the teamwork and to make it through to the next round. “We have to fight in the next few games. It is a difficult situation for us in the league but we have to fight.

“We have a good opportunity to go to the final and fight for a place in the top four. But now is the moment to relax and enjoy this win.”

Leicester 1-2 Chelsea: Blues battle to victory

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  • Morata scores first goal of 2018
  • Vardy nets, score 17th of season
  • Pedro scores in extra time

Chelsea beat Leicester City 2-1 after extra time to seal their spot in the FA Cup semifinal.

Alvaro Morata gave Antonio Conte’s men the lead, but Jamie Vardy equalized to take it to extra time.

Pedro then struck to send Chelsea into the semifinal for the second-straight season.

Leicester started well and went close when Marc Albrighton‘s effort from the edge of the box squirmed just wide.

However the longer the first half well, the more dangerous Chelsea looked.

The West London club threatened on the break through Morata with Marcos Alonso and Victor Moses having plenty of space out wide.

Morata then made the breakthrough right on half time as Willian nicked the ball, surged forward and released the Spaniard who finished calmly for his first goal in 2018.

After the break Leicester finally came to life as Wilfred Ndidi picked out Vardy with a wonderful pass but the Leicester forward looped his header over the bar.

Albrighton whipped in plenty of inviting crosses as Leicester pushed hard for an equalizerand eventually broke through.

Vicente Iborra got on the end of Riyad Mahrez‘s cross and he was denied twice by heroic blocks but Vardy was on hand to tap home. Game on.

Substitute Shinji Okazaki almost got on the end of a cross soon after and at the other end Morata hit the post with an acrobatic finish… but he was in an offside position.

Morata was then denied twice by Kasper Schmeichel at the end of normal time as the game went to extra time.

Pedro was the hero for Chelsea as he headed home the winner in extra time to send Chelsea to Wembley.