PREVIEW: Everything you need to know about the World Cup in one beautiful post


It’s here! Well, sort of. The 2014 World Cup begins play on Thursday when Brazil and Croatia tangle at 4pm ET.

So let’s say you’ve just found us, or that your WC knowledge isn’t quite where you feel it needs to be heading into the tournament. Here’s every single thing we’ve had to say leading up to Brazil, beginning with our staff’s roundtablepicks and predictions, the top 20 moments in the history of the World Cup …

… and continuing through everything we’ve gone on all eight groups. It’s all linked up, below.

Skip around: A | B | C | D | E | F | G | H



The host country’s record since a Feb. 6, 2013 loss to England at Wembley? A shiny 16W-4D-1L. The clear favorites to become the fourth hosts to win the thing, Brazil will trot out a loaded team that arguably boasts a dozen of the top 20 players in the group.


1. The home team rules. Brazil is vying to win the World Cup on home soil, and has the added benefit of this fact: they’d be a favorite for the tournament regardless of continent. Thirteen of 19 champions have won on their home continent.

2. No Super Mario… to start. Croatia star striker Mario Mandzukic will miss the opener against Brazil with a suspension picked up at the tail end of qualifying. It’s a significant disadvantage for the visitors.

3. El Tri is inconsitent. Mexico looked dominant against New Zealand in the qualifying playoff, but that was after needing every bit of Graham Zusi- and Aron Johannsson-fueled luck to make the playoff. Are they the team that’s posted back-to-back 1-0 losses to Portugal and Bosnia & Herzegovina, or are they the team that’s skunked Israel, Ecuador and South Korea?


Thursday, June 12 , 5 p.m. Eastern, Sao Paulo – Brazil vs. Croatia
Friday, June 13, 1 p.m. Eastern, Natal – Mexico vs. Cameroon

Tuesday, June 17, 4 p.m. Eastern, Fortaleza – Brazil vs. Mexico
Wednesday, June 18, 6 p.m. Eastern, Manaus – Cameroon vs. Croatia

Monday, June 23, 4 p.m. Eastern, Brasilia – Cameroon vs. Brazil
Monday, June 23, 4 p.m. Eastern, Recife – Croatia vs. Mexico

(click for full team preview)

1. Brazil
2. Croatia
3. Mexico
4. Cameroon


Skip around: A | B | C | D | E | F | G | H



A loaded group with stars to burn — Arjen Robben doesn’t even make our Top Five players for the bunch — Group B should provide a bunch of terrific games. Australia is the afterthought of the four, but anything could happen and a Socceroos upset behind Tim Cahill and Mile Jedinak would provide an even wilder card.


1. Spain is seeking out history, as they’ll look to pick up back-to-back World Cup titles with a European Championship sandwiched in the middle. We don’t always talk dynasties when it comes to international soccer, but this Spanish unit will be writing a new language if they come strong.

2. It’s getting Chile in here. South American nations are getting a lot of run leading up to the tournament, and Chile has loads of talent (especially if Arturo Vidal is ready to go). It wouldn’t be a shock to see them come out of the group and make a little noise.

3. What will the Dutch midfield do? Without the injured Kevin Strootman and Rafael van der Vaart, Netherlands will have to navigate a tough group with a depleted engine room. Names like Robin van Persie, Arjen Robben and Wesley Sneijder are still there, though.


Friday, June 13, 4 p.m. Eastern, Salvador – Spain vs. Netherlands
Friday, June 13, 7 p.m. Eastern, Cuiaba – Chile vs. Australia

Wednesday, June 18, 1 p.m. Eastern, Porto Alegre – Australia vs. Netherlands
Wednesday, June 18, 2 p.m. Eastern, Rio de Janeiro – Spain vs. Chile

Monday, June 23, 12 p.m. Eastern, Curitiba – Australia vs. Spain
Monday, June 23, 12 p.m. Eastern, Sao Paulo – Netherlands vs. Chile

(click for full team preview)

1. Spain
2. Chile
3. Netherlands
4. Australia


Skip around: A | B | C | D | E | F | G | H



The upshot is a competitive group that provides a wide range of potentials, styles, experience, and stars, and with three teams taking suspected back lines into the tournament, we’ll likely see goals. Combine that with a parity among the group’s bottom three and you have a prescription for drama.


1. Colombia’s biggest star is out, but the team’s still favored to win this group. Radamel Falcao — the AS Monaco striker that can claim to be one of Europe’s best — couldn’t recover from his knee injury in time to play. Even without him, a talented attack featuring James Rodríguez, Teófilo Gutíerrez, Jackson Martínez, Adrián Ramos, and Carlos Bacca should have enough firepower to carry José Pekerman’s team to the top of the group.

2. No defense means more goals. With the exception of Greece, each team has weak at the back. That means the star-studed Ivorians and a technically and tactically astute Japan could join Colombia in making this one of the tournament’s highest scoring groups.

3. And those Ivorians are certainly star-studded. Didier Drogba is the most famous African soccer player in the world, and he might not be the best forward on his team. That’s because Cote d’Ivoire also have Wilfried Bony, Salomon Kalou, and Gervinho – players who combined for 41 goals in their European leagues this season. Add ingmidfielder Yaya Toure — the team’s best player — and you have less of a dark horse than the first page of a playbill.


Saturday, June 14 , 12 p.m. Eastern, Belo Horizonte – Colombia vs. Greece
Saturday, June 14, 9 p.m. Eastern, Recife – Cote d’Ivoire vs. Japan

Thursday, June 19, 12 p.m. Eastern, Brasilia – Colombia vs. Cote d’Ivoire
Thursday, June 19, 6 p.m. Eastern, Natal – Japan vs. Greece

Tuesday, June 24, 4 p.m. Eastern, Cuiaba – Japan vs. Colombia
Tuesday, June 24, 4 p.m. Eastern, Fortaleza – Greece vs. Cote d’Ivoire

(click for full team preview)

1. Colombia
2. Cote d’Ivoire
3. Japan
4. Greece


Skip around: A | B | C | D | E | F | G | H



One of the most difficult packs to predict at the 2014 World Cup, Group D has three teams who could finish first or tumble to third. Between England, Italy, and Uruguay, Group D’s contenders have seven World Cups and 10 world titles, a collection of honors that ensures one impressive résumé will be cast aside with the 15 other teams that fail to make the knockout round.


1. This is not your typical England, in the sense that many of the stylistic elements (which usually depict a stoic if physically-capable team) aren’t present in this year’s Three Lions. Yeah, you still have two big reliable-types in central defense (Chelsea’s Gary Cahill, Everton’s Phil Jagielka), but you also have the skill of Adam Lallana, Wayne Rooney, and Raheem Sterling in attack, with Daniel Sturridge’s speed giving Roy Hodgson a new type of threat up top. England’s not even playing 4-4-2 anymore!

2. Andrea Pirlo’s last hurrah will also feature a passing of the torch, with Paris Saint-Germain’s Pirlo-to-be Marco Verratti a likely starter in Cesare Prandelli’s 4-5-1. While Pirlo’s signed a new deal with Juventus which will take him up to the next Euros, this will almost certainly be the 35-year-old’s final World Cup. As his generation’s quintessential deep-lying distributor, Pirlo’s last World Cup will be a talking point for the next generation of registas.

3. Luis Suárez’s health is really, really important, particularly considering the depth of this group. With a healthy Suárez, playing in South America, you could make a case for the Uruguayans as favorites. Without him, it will come down to how well the 35-year-old Diego Forlán (as well as Gastón Ramirez) link a deep central midfield with the team’s healthy scoring threat: Paris Saint-Germain’s Edinson Cavani.


Saturday, June 14, 3 p.m. Eastern, Fortaleza – Uruguay vs. Costa Rica
Saturday, June 14, 6 p.m. Eastern, Manaus – England vs. Italy

Thursday, June 19, 3 p.m. Eastern, Sao Paulo – Uruguay vs. England
Friday, June 20, 12 p.m. Eastern, Recife – Italy vs. Costa Rica

Tuesday, June 24, 12 p.m. Eastern, Belo Horizonte – Costa Rica vs. England
Tuesday, June 24, 12 p.m. Eastern, Natal – Italy vs. Uruguay

(click for full team preview)

1. Italy
2. Uruguay
3. England
4. Costa Rica


Skip around: A | B | C | D | E | F | G | H



The Ecuadorians last four friendlies were against World Cup competition (a loss to Mexico, defeat of Australia and draws against England and the Netherlands). Can this, and the South American climate, help them escape the group?


1. Anyone can emerge from this group. Even though France and Switzerland will be expected to go through, Ecuador will hope being close to home helps while Honduras is capable of making anyone’s lives miserable with their borderline play.

2. French rebound. Their last World Cup was probably among the most embarrassing for any true power in history, as in-fighting and bizarre stories crushed their dreams of glory. A younger unit may be able to harness great skill and energy, even without Franck Ribery.

3. All eyes on June 20. Every World Cup game packs import, but Switzerland versus France will, in all likelihood, be the one that decides who wins the group.


Sunday, June 15 , 1 p.m. Eastern, Brasilia – Switzerland vs. Ecuador
Sunday, June 15, 4 p.m. Eastern, Porto Alegre – France vs. Honduras

Friday, June 20, 3 p.m. Eastern, Salvador – Switzerland vs. France
Friday, June 20, 6 p.m. Eastern, Curitiba – Honduras vs. Ecuador

Wednesday, June 25, 4 p.m. Eastern, Manaus – Honduras vs. Switzerland
Wednesday, June 25, 4 p.m. Eastern, Rio de Janeiro – Ecuador vs. France

(click for full team preview)

1. France
2. Switzerland
3. Ecuador
4. Honduras

Skip around: A | B | C | D | E | F | G | H



The Super Eagles would provide a significant upset were they to climb ahead of either BNH or Argentina, while a Top Two place for Iran would be among the biggest moments in World Cup history.


1. Kinda predictable? Our staff laid out its predictions for the group, which looked, well, exactly the same. Argentina is expected to walk through the group with Bosnia and Herzegovina a close second.

2. Messy Messi? Despite the constant high-fives and plaudits for his work with Barcelona, superstar striker Lionel Messi has received plenty of guff from Argentine fans. Can he deliver loads of goals, assists and wonder this time around?

3. Nigeria could be a wild card. Stephen Keshi’s squad has truckloads of talent, but lacks consistency. Even if its defense falters, the Super Eagles are capable of sending plenty of balls on goal. Could we see some big scorelines?


Sunday, June 15 , 7 p.m. Eastern, Belo Horizonte – Argentina vs. Bosnia & Herzegovina
Monday, June 16, 4 p.m. Eastern, Recife – Iran vs. Nigeria

Saturday, June 21, 12 p.m. Eastern, Brasilia – Argentina vs. Iran
Saturday, June 21, 6 p.m. Eastern, Natal – Nigeria vs. Bosnia & Herzegovina

Wednesday, June 25, 12 p.m. Eastern, Cuiaba – Nigeria vs. Argentina
Wednesday, June 25, 12 p.m. Eastern, Fortaleza – Bosnia & Herzegovina vs. Iran

(click for full team preview)

1. Argentina
2. Bosnia and Herzegovina
3. Nigeria
4. Iran


Skip around: A | B | C | D | E | F | G | H



The argument against this being the Group of Death: There’s a pretty big drop off after the quartet’s top two, a drop you don’t see in Groups B and D. Ultimately, if there are no upsets, two teams that may not be among the best 16 in the world won’t make it to the second round …

That’s not a Group of Death, but it is a group of depth – a packet that could provide drama, particularly if Portugal isn’t at full strength when they face Germany on June 16.


1. Germany is ridiculously talented and has history on its side, making the final eight in every World Cup they’ve entered. Even with Borussia Dortmund star Marco Reus out, the front six is so deep that Mesut Özil, Bastian Schweinsteiger, and Mario Götze didn’t start their team’s final pre-Cup friendly. Germany’s second XI team would have a good chance to make this tournament’s knockout round.

2. Cristiano Ronaldo isn’t healthy, and might not be for the entire tournament, thanks to tendinosis in his left knee. That’s not something that’s going to improve in the middle of a month-long competition. For a team that’s becoming increasingly, worryingly dependent on its star, Portugal may need more than a 75 percent Ronaldo to hold off the U.S. or Ghana.

3. After years of derision, the stereotypes could prove decisive for the U.S. in Brazil, just as the team’s fitness, speed, strength and physicality left it on the edge of the semifinals in 2002. For those deriding the U.S.’s technical qualities, those virtues are often cited euphemistically, yet they will be real factors as this tournament progresses. When the U.S. and Portugal descend on Manaus for game two, Jurgen Klinsmann’s emphasis on fitness could pay off.


Monday, June 16, 12 p.m. Eastern, Salvador – Germany vs. Portugal
Monday, June 16, 6 p.m. Eastern, Natal – Ghana vs. United States

Saturday, June 21, 3 p.m. Eastern,  Fortaleza – Germany vs. Ghana
Sunday, June 22, 6 p.m. Eastern, Manaus – United States vs. Portugal

Thursday, June 26, 12 p.m. Eastern, Brasilia – Portugal vs. Ghana
Thursday, June 26, 12 p.m. Eastern, Recife – United States vs. Germany

(click for full team preview)

1. Germany
2. Portugal
3. United States
4. Ghana


MORE: United States player profiles … all of them

Skip around: A | B | C | D | E | F | G | H



In terms of talent, there is no group at this year’s World Cup that sees such a huge gap between its leaders and the pack … [Belgium] will arrive in Brazil as one of the most talented teams on the planet. Only a lack of experience and notable results keeps the Belgians from being more than a dark horse.


1. Russia and South Korea may be looking forward, with the Koreans’ young squad and Russia’s upcoming hosting gig making both teams more viable in 2018. Without its captain (the injured Roman Shirokov), Russia may have trouble getting Aleksandr Kerzakhov onto the scoresheet, while Korea’s quality in the midfield may not make up for mistakes at the back.

2. Algeria are anonymous, but still dangerous, far more so than four years ago. With Valencia’s Sofiane Feghouli in midfield, the Desert Foxes have a player whose quality could produce the goal Algeria couldn’t find in the 2010 tournament. Their central defense can be beaten with speed, but neither Russia nor South Korea may have the quality to exploit that weakness. It will still take an upset, but an Algerian team that lacks name stars could produce its first World Cup victory since 1982.

3. Belgium really are as dangerous as advertised, but that doesn’t mean they’ll be as good as their seed implies. Frankly, we don’t know. Europe’s World Cup qualifying is so watered down, teams can go the entire tournament without facing a credible threat, and given Belgium didn’t qualify for Euro 2012, we have no real idea how good they are as a team. We can look at names like Thibaut Courtois, Vincent Kompany, and Romelu Lukaku had gawk at their potential, but you need only look to Eden Hazard’s international record to see reason for caution. The Chelsea attacker has 52 goals over the last three years at club-level, but he’s only scored six times in 45 appearances for his country.


Tuesday, June 17, 12 p.m. Eastern, Belo Horizonte – Belgium vs. Algeria
Tuesday, June 17, 6 p.m. Eastern, Cuiaba – Russia vs. South Korea

Sunday, June 22, 12 p.m. Eastern, Rio de Janeiro – Belgium vs. Russia
Sunday, June 22, 3 p.m. Eastern, Porto Alegre – South Korea vs. Algeria

Thursday, June 26, 4 p.m. Eastern, Curitibia – Algeria vs. Russia
Thursday, June 26, 4 p.m. Eastern, Sao Paulo – South Korea vs. Belgium

(click for full team preview)

1. Belgium
2. Russia
3. South Korea
4. Algeria


Skip around: A | B | C | D | E | F | G | H

Jose Mourinho says Chelsea can’t “delete” him from its history

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - OCTOBER 20:  Jose Mourinho the manager of Manchester United looks on during the UEFA Europa League Group A match between Manchester United FC and Fenerbahce SK at Old Trafford on October 20, 2016 in Manchester, England.  (Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)
Getty Images
Leave a comment

With Manchester United set to visit Chelsea at Stamford Bridge, the Special One will be returning to his former stomping grounds, a place where he spent six tumultuous seasons spread across two separate reigns.

While Jose Mourinho insisted he has “no hard feelings” for his former club and the way things ended, but did not mince words the subject of his former boss came up.

While Mourinho insisted he has “respect” for Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich, telling Sky Sports, “We were never friends. We were never close to each other. So he is just a person that I keep very respected.”

Mourinho also said that, even if The Blues wanted to, “They couldn’t delete me from Chelsea history. They belong to my history too. No bad feelings,” Mourinho told Sky Sports. The owner, he decided to sack me…the fans, they have no power. They show day by day, match after match, that they wanted me, but in this profile of club, the fans have no power. In some clubs, especially in some Latin countries, the format of the club, the fans have real power on the board and with the president and owners, but here they have no power so Mr Abramovich decided to sack me, but I left with not one bad word about anyone or anybody at the club.”

The 53-year-old said the titles he won at Chelsea were proof that “I did my job.” He finished by saying that no matter the treatment from fans, he will always hold Chelsea as he does all his other stops. “From me, you are not going to have, ever, a bad word about any one of my previous clubs,” Mourinho said. “I keep always a very good feeling. It doesn’t matter what is going to happen. But, it is my nature. It is my job. It is my new club. On Sunday I will go there to try and do my job.”

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)
Getty Images
1 Comment

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

Leave a comment

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.

Follow @JPW_NBCSports

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)
Getty Images
Leave a comment

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.