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Southampton’s victory made sweeter after Liverpool’s cherry-picking

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LIVERPOOL — Southampton’s fans were ecstatic to reach their first final of a major competition since 2003.

Reaching the 2016-17 final of the EFL Cup tasted even sweeter because it came at the expense of Liverpool.

[ MORE: 3 things we learned ]

In the last three seasons Southampton have sold five star players to Liverpool, racking up $115 million in transfer fees. Although that has obviously boosted Saints’ finances considerably and they chose to sell the players, the fact the likes of Adam Lallana, Dejan Lovren, Nathaniel Clyne and now Sadio Mane all left for Anfield left a sour taste in the mouth for Southampton’s fans.

Liverpool have been nicknamed “Liverhampton” by many Saints fans such has been the level of their pilfering in recent seasons. Players and managers have left Saints for Manchester United, Arsenal, Everton and Tottenham, but the way Liverpool cherry-picks Saints’ top talent each summer leaves many of their fans sick to the stomach.

On Wednesday Saints showed they’d not only plugged the gaps after selling stars but they’d beaten Liverpool fair and square over two legs, reaching the League Cup final for just the second time in their history and securing another long-stated goal of reaching the final of a domestic cup competition.

“It’s not bad, eh?” manager Claude Puel joked post-game. “It’s fantastic. I am happy for all the squad because they work very hard since the beginning of the season and play all these games every three days which is very difficult. Often they can do fantastic work on the pitch without the good reward and today I think it’s fantastic to win this game, to see the qualify for Wembley and to have all this for the staff, the player and our fans.

“We have fantastic fans, Inter Milan away with 8,000 fans was fantastic and every time and every game they come and it’s a fantastic reward for all the good work. It’s not finished now. It’s interesting of course to go to Wembley and it’s not just to participate but to win this game. We have time to prepare this game.”

Puel will go down in folklore for leading Saints to a final and they put in the perfect gameplan against a Liverpool side renowned for their pressing and harrying. Yet, they’ve done very well against Liverpool since Klopp arrived, losing just one of their six games against the German coach with a 3-1-2 record.

It’s like they have something extra to prove…

Over the two legs Saints sat back, soaked up pressure and hit Liverpool on the counter. They did it so well their manager Jurgen Klopp congratulated them for their victory, then questioned why they don’t play on the counter all the time. He’s got a point.

Puel’s tactics usually see Saints dominant possession and then spurn chances. Their inconsistent form in the Premier League and early exit from the UEFA Europa League attest to the struggles they’ve had adapting to the Frenchman’s tactics in his first season in England.

However, he is just the third manager since 1976 to lead Saints to a major final. The man they called “the dog” in his playing days for his rugged style of play has transferred that spirit to his team as they’ve now kept clean sheets in all five of their EFL Cup games on the road to Wembley, knocking off Premier League opponents Crystal Palace, Sunderland, Arsenal and now Liverpool. Oriol Romeu was a warrior in midfield and Shane Long delivered the hammer blow in stoppage time by finishing off one final devastating counter attack.

As for Liverpool, those who switched St Mary’s for Anfield probably won’t be regretting their move. They left for one of the most famous clubs on the planet plus their bank balances have swelled considerably. Yet, just a part of them may have been a little jealous to not help Saints complete their remarkable journey from winning the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy at Wembley in 2010 as a third-tier club to reaching the famous arch for the EFL Cup final in 2017.

After a shaky start to the 2016-17 season, Saints are in the ascendancy once again. Having to rebuild time and time again will eventually catch up with you and arguably that has happened to Saints this season as goals have dried up. Their young team came of age at Anfield and this was a significant moment in their development.

Meanwhile Liverpool’s slump of one win in seven games in January is indicative of Klopp’s methods wearing his players down. The pressure of slipping up in the title race (they could trail Chelsea by 13 points if they lose to them at Anfield on Tuesday) is weighing heavy on their shoulders and although they managed to create chances, they never looked like getting in-behind a makeshift Saints backline.

With young Jack Stephens stepping in for the injured talisman Virgil Van Dijk, he put in a fine display to show that Saints’ academy is still churning out stars. Whenever a Saints youngster comes through the ranks now and plays well, the first joke you see emanate on social media is something along the lines of “Welcome to Liverpool, Josh Sims/Sam McQueen/Jack Stephens.”

The conveyor belt from St Mary’s to Anfield may carry on.

Southampton’s fans won’t care about that too much right now after the magical night at Anfield. They celebrated wildly at the full time whistle and so did their players on the pitch and in the dressing room.

Asked by Pro Soccer Talk if reaching the final not only presented a chance to win a trophy but also get back to Europe, Puel admitted the motivation to make up for their early European exit this season is strong.

“Yes. It’s an important big game, not just to play this final but perhaps to see another qualification for the European games,” Puel said. “It will be important for the squad to continue the work, to improve, and know the possibilities to play European games. All the information when they improve it’s important to put all this experience for next year in European games. It will be important to qualify.”

For now, Saints’ fans will savor a special night for everyone connected with the club.

Their march goes on. Without the stars who left for Liverpool.

2018 World Cup Power Rankings — 7 months B.W.C.

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209 days — that’s how long the world is still being made to wait for the opening game of the 2018 World Cup. It’s close, in that all 32 berths have been secured, but still so far, in that the draw is still two weeks away.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s 2018 World Cup coverage | USMNT | Premier League ]

Perhaps then, and only then, will it begin to feel really real.

According to our esteemed panelists — Joe Prince-Wright, Nicholas Mendola, Kyle Bonn, Matt Reed, Dan Karell and yours truly — four clear-cut favorites for the semifinals have separated themselves from the rest of the pack, followed by another six or eight sides with one half of their squad firing on all cylinders but some serious kinks to work out elsewhere.

[ MORE: Round 1 of the WC power rankings | Round 2 ]

Finally, the latest edition of PST’s 2018 World Cup Power Rankings, now featuring all 32 teams qualified for Russia…

Team Points Best Worst
1 (1) Germany 189 1 2
2 (2) Brazil 188 1 3
3 (4) Spain 177 3 5
4 (3) France 176 3 5
5 (8) Argentina 158 4 10
6 (5) Belgium 156 4 10
7 (7) Portugal 153 6 10
8 (11) England 150 5 12
9 (6) Uruguay 141 6 14
10 (9) Colombia 140 7 12
11 (10) Mexico 129 8 14
12 (12) Poland 125 10 14
13 (20) Croatia 118 7 20
14 (17) Switzerland 115 12 16
15 (NR) Sweden 92 16 19
16 (NR) Denmark 86 13 23
17 (NR) Serbia 83 9 28
18 (NR) Peru 80 15 25
19 (15) Iceland 79 15 24
20 (16) Japan 71 16 27
21 (NR) Egypt 66 18 27
22 (NR) South Korea 64 13 32
23 (NR) Senegal 63 17 26
24 (18) Nigeria 58 15 27
25 (19) Costa Rica 57 14 29
26 (NR) Morocco 48 18 29
27 (NR) Australia 45 22 30
28 (NR) Russia 36 20 32
29 (NR) Iran 34 22 31
30 (NR) Tunisia 30 23 31
31 (NR) Panama 19 28 32
32 (NR) Saudi Arabia 9 31 32

Zidane anxiously awaiting goals from Ronaldo

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MADRID (AP) For Zinedine Zidane, the Madrid derby on Saturday is just what Cristiano Ronaldo and Karim Benzema need to break their scoring slump.

The Real Madrid forwards have been struggling in the Spanish league, with just two goals between them.

Ronaldo, while striking six times in the Champions League, has tallied only one in seven Liga appearances.

Benzema is having an even tougher time, with just two in 12 matches across all competitions.

“It’s true that this is not normal, but they just need to keep training and keep trying as they have been doing,” Zidane says.

“You don’t need to tell Karim and Cristiano that they should train more, it’s something they do. They will go out on the pitch and score, I am sure of it.”

Over his career, Ronaldo has thrived against Real’s crosstown rival, Atletico. He holds the record for the Spanish capital derby with 21 goals.

Benzema’s performances, however, have not been as impressive, with three goals in his last 14 league matches against Atletico.

Zidane says Ronaldo and Benzema focused on recovering their scoring form last week during the international break, when they stayed at the club instead of joining their national sides.

“We have been working on it,” he said. “What I want is that my players, my forwards, play well, and tomorrow is a good match for them to keep trying.”

Their scoring droughts have contributed to Real’s irregular season.

Real is in third place and level on points with Atletico, which is fourth after having trouble winning at its new Wanda Metropolitan Stadium.

Both sides need a victory to keep pace with leader Barcelona, which visits Leganes hours earlier.

If Barcelona wins, Madrid and Atletico will be staring at an 11-point gap by kickoff.

Why Caleb Porter isn’t the man for the USMNT

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The Portland Timbers are a cherry club in Major League Soccer.

Owner Merritt Paulson is as dedicated as any in the game and the supporters make 21,000-seat Providence Park one of the most intoxicating venues in the league.

So it’s a safe bet, much like the United States men’s national team, that the Timbers will be in fine shape when they find the replacement for their current departed combustible coach.

[ PST SURVEY: Who should be next USMNT coach? ]

In Portland’s case, it’s Caleb Porter. The former University of Akron mastermind left the club on Friday, fueling speculation that he must be in talks to be the next USMNT coach.

Please, no.

Porter’s name has been raised for some time as a successor to Jurgen Klinsmann or Bruce Arena and, at the risk of becoming a Cold Takes Exposed case, there are myriad reasons to dismiss him from consideration for the gig (which isn’t to say he shouldn’t be a risk-reward hire for another MLS side).

Porter has an MLS Cup Final win as Portland boss, though it should be noted it came in a season the Timbers had to rally to make the playoffs. He’s led the Timbers to two No. 1 seeds in the West, and won a national championship at Akron.

Those are all incredibly positive, but the reasons he’s a risk for a program in disarray are many.

  1. His previous experience with the U.S., leading the Olympic qualifying team, saw a fairly-loaded U-23 fail to escape the group stage of qualifying.
  2. For all their successes, the Timbers twice missed the MLS Cup Playoffs during his five seasons in charge.
  3. Despite it’s low profile prior to its national championship, Akron, was very good before he arrived under Ken Lolla, now with Louisville, and has been quite good since he left under Jared Embick.

This isn’t to say the 42-year-old Porter is not a good coach. That would be foolish, and it would be interesting to see how he’d fare leading an overseas club or other national team.

But his record simply isn’t strong enough to take the reins of the USMNT. As silly as this sounds, perhaps he could’ve been a name to consider should the Yanks have squeaked into the World Cup with Arena. But they didn’t, and risk is not the name of the game right now.

Let’s start with his Portland tenure.

Timbers under Porter
2013* – 1st place, West; 3rd overall; 6 clear of 6th
2014 – 6th place, West; 11th overall;
2015* – 3rd place, West; 5th overall; 6 clear of 7th, MLS Cup champions
2016 – 7th place, West; 12th overall
2017* – 1st place, West; 6th overall; 7 pts clear of 7th

The Timbers may still be alive this season had Diego Chara not been injured in this season’s playoffs, and that should be noted. It should also be mentioned that Portland did not fire Porter, according to all accounts.

Yet it’s difficult to look past that, and it’s not the only argument against the Porter risk.

Let’s not overlook the failure to qualify for the Olympics in 2012, when Porter led a massively talented U.S. roster to third place in Group A behind El Salvador and Canada.

After beating Cuba 6-0, the U.S. lost 2-0 to Canada before drawing El Salvador 3-3. For those wanting to argue it was a weak American cycle of players, the U.S. had the following in the squad: Bill Hamid, Juan Agudelo, Mix Diskerud, Brek Shea, Joe Corona, Perry Kitchen, Ike Opara, Joe Gyau, Terrence Boyd, Amobi Okugo, Teal Bunbury, and Jorge Villafana.

Then there’s Akron, where Porter barely lost and recruited a treasure trove of MLS SuperDraft picks en route to his national title. It’s the least point of the bunch, but to hang a hat on that acumen is to ignore that Akron’s been a relative national contender, given its size, for decades, and that Lolla has Louisville humming while Embick has not booting possession since taking over.

There’s a further point to be made regarding personality and Porter’s penchant for touchline drama. Goodness knows half the duty of a national team coach is massaging big egos, and Porter’s self-impression is significant in stature.

Now the U.S. may well hire Porter, and he may right the ship and lead them to a Confederations Cup-clinching Gold Cup win, a Copa America semifinal, and a 2022 World Cup quarterfinal under a potentially Golden Generation.

That’s great. I’ll be very happy to be wrong. But let’s hope the Yanks call upon any number of safer options with international experience or a safer and more tested domestic resume.

Premier League preview: Arsenal vs. Tottenham Hotspur

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  • 194th edition of the north London derby
  • Spurs unbeaten in 6 vs. Arsenal: D-W-D-D-D-W
  • Spurs 3rd in the PL; Arsenal 6th

Has the balance of power shifted in north London? The 2016-17 season was the first in 22 years to see Tottenham Hotspur finish above Arsenal. While it’s clearly just one out of 23 seasons to finish with Tottenham on top, their respective trajectories have been moving in opposite directions considerably longer.

The latest installment of one of the Premier League’s fiercest, and suddenly most consequential, rivalries kicks off a full weekend of action on Saturday (Watch live, 7:30 a.m. ET, on NBCSN and NBCSports.com), following the final international break of 2017.

WATCH LIVE, ONLINE, HERE

Given Manchester City’s blistering start, the current season already seems a serious long shot that either side will mount a serious title challenge — Spurs currently sit third (eight points back of Man City) ahead of their trip to the Emirates Stadium, home of the sixth-place Gunners (12 back). The Emirates has been a tough place for Spurs to pull off the upset, having failed to win their last six times away to Arsenal, though draws in three straight will certainly have Mauricio Pochettino‘s side believing they’re now equals — if not superiors — and the time is now.

The international break couldn’t have come at a better time for either side: Arsenal, having been thoroughly beaten by City their last time out; Spurs, having suffered a handful of short- and medium-term injuries to a number of key figures — Harry Kane, Dele Alli and Harry Winks all skipped England duty to achieve full fitness ahead of Saturday, while Toby Aldeweireld is out an additional month and Hugo Lloris could miss another week.

As for the managers, Pochettino has been extremely complimentary of Wenger — as he’s always done since arriving at Spurs in the summer of 2014 — while his counterpart isn’t at all ready to concede Arsenal’s place at the north London summit.

What they’re saying

Arsene Wenger, on the rivalry: “Today, people always take one situation and it is permanent. The judgement is definite, permanent and forever. … It is down to us to change the opinions of people with our performances, I cannot say much more. If they have a perception like that they have a perception like that but how can you respond? Not by me talking here, we need to show on Saturday that it’s not true.”

Mauricio Pochettino, on Wenger: “In football history he is one of the great managers, the same level as Sir Alex Ferguson. He will always be a special manager. … To keep motivation more than three years is difficult. Five years, you must be very good, very good if you are 10 years. When you talk about 20 years it is amazing. Everyone who talks about him needs to show respect. … Arsene Wenger is my enemy because he is Arsenal manager but he is my colleague too. What he is doing at Arsenal and as a manager – I would like to be like him one day, 20 years at Tottenham.”

INJURIES: Arsenal — OUT: Olivier Giroud (thigh), Rob Holding (thigh), Santi Cazorla (achilles); QUESTIONABLE: Danny Welbeck (hamstring), Shkodran Mustafi (thigh) | Tottenham — OUT: Toby Aldeweireld (hamstring), Victor Wanyama (knee), Erik Lamela (hip); QUESTIONABLE: Hugo Lloris (groin); RETURNING: Dele Alli (hamstring), Harry Winks (ankle)

Prediction

A draw featuring (multiple) goals for both sides seems completely inevitable and unavoidable. Spurs have closed the gap to the point they’ll actually expect to win at the Emirates, but the quality of Arsenal’s squad, coupled with their desperation to challenge for a top-four place, is more than enough to put the two sides back on level footing and result in a thrilling, end-to-end deadlock which leaves neither side particularly pleased in the end.