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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.

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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.

Pep celebrates another historic Man City performance

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Pep Guardiola was thrilled with his club’s response to sealing the Premier League title: More dominance.

[ RECAP: Man City 5-0 Swans ]

Man City battered Swansea City 5-0 at the Etihad Stadium on the strength of goals from five different players.

“From the first minute to the last one, we played what we have shown in the season,” Guardiola said on NBCSN after the match. “(We scored) a lot of goals and we didn’t concede. We play to keep improving our game here and for the next season.”

Guardiola could hardly differentiate between the club’s stylish Sunday goals, saying, “The first one, the second one, of course the third one. … The Yaya pass was amazing. All the goals were so good.”

And he was also pleased with the support from the Etihad Stadium crowd, though he admits he was grateful to escape before the City faithful stormed the pitch.

Guardiola said he thinks the supporters are still behind their team despite the decisive UEFA Champions League loss to Liverpool because of how hard City plays week-in and week-out.

“That’s happened because they know that we are not liars in the way we want to play,” he said. “They know that we tried our best from the beginning to the end. We knew from the beginning how happy they were.”

Conte relishing renewal of Mourinho rivalry

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LONDON —  Antonio Conte versus Jose Mourinho. Chelsea versus Manchester United.

The FA Cup final on May 19 will be some showdown between two Premier League giants as Chelsea breezed past Southampton 2-0 in their semifinal at Wembley on Sunday.

Conte against Mourinho is a battle which has become increasingly feisty over the past two seasons as they’ve had public spats and insulted one another.

Speaking after the game, Conte was asked about his relationship with Mourinho and potential fireworks on the sidelines, as well as on the pitch, during the final.

“With Jose [Mourinho], we have clarified the situation and that is the most important thing. There is not a problem between him and I,” Conte said. “I think this is a final between two great teams. In my mind I can tell you last season we arrived as favorites against Arsenal. I think in this season season we are not arriving as favorites but as you know very well, last season we lost the cup.”

Conte then revealed he respects Mourinho despite the words the two had earlier this season.

The Italian coach responded to Mourinho’s comments about him, and other PL managers, acting like “clowns” on the sidelines by saying Mourinho was a “fake, little man” as United’s manager also hit out and made a remark about Conte’s involvement in a previous match-fixing investigation.

“We are talking about two managers with a strong character and about two winners and when your mind, your heart, your blood and there is the will to win, for sure we want to try to win this trophy,” Conte said. “The same way Manchester United wants to achieve this. I have great respect for United’s story, for Mourinho’s story. I think they have the same respect for Chelsea’s story and my story.”

Let’s see if that respect is on show during what should be a fantastic final next month as it could well be Conte’s final game in charge of Chelsea.

Man City 5-0 Swans: Royal blowout

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  • Swans give guard of honor
  • Four different goal scorers
  • Fabianski saves PK

Five different players scored as Manchester City hammered Swansea City 5-0 at the Etihad Stadium on Sunday.

Fans flooded the pitch after the final whistle, many congregating around a surprised Benjamin Mendy in his return from injury.

Kevin De Bruyne scored the highlight reel goal, with David Silva, Raheem Sterling, Gabriel Jesus, and Bernardo Silva also scoring for the Premier League champions in their first match since sealing the title through a Manchester United loss to West Brom.

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays ]

Man City put together another brilliant team goal to open the scoring, with Kevin De Bruyne playing Raheem Sterling toward the end line and David Silva burying Sterling’s cutback in the 12th minute.

Sterling made it 2-0 in the 16th minute, capping off a 1-2 between Fabian Delph and David Silva with a back post tap-in.

Lukasz Fabianski caught a curling effort from Bernardo Silva as the match reached the half hour mark. He’d stop De Bruyne two minutes later.

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De Bruyne scored an otherworldly goal from 25 yards in the 54th minute.

Swansea almost had an answer through Ki Sung-yeung’s corner kick, but Alfie Mawson headed over the bar.

Federico Fernandez conceded a penalty kick to Sterling, and Jesus saw his chance saved by Fabianski. That didn’t stop Bernardo Silva from carving a rebound goal for 4-0.

Benjamin Mendy made his long-awaited return from injury with a 75th minute substitution for Delph.

Fellow substitute Phil Foden took a play started by Yaya Toure and nearly found an assist when Fabianski caught Jesus’ header.

Jesus got his goal when he popped Toure’s scooped past over Fabianski in the 88th.

WATCH: De Bruyne thunders another distance goal for Man City

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The voters have already marked their ballots, but Kevin De Bruyne sent out a “Don’t forget about me” to Premier League Player of the Year debaters on Sunday.

[ RECAP: Arsenal 4-1 West Ham ]

With Man City already in full control of visitors Swansea City, the Belgian playmaker lashed a 25-yard beauty beyond the reach of Lukasz Fabianski.

According to Opta, it’s De Bruyne’s PL-leading fifth goal from outside the box. He has eight league goals and 15 assists this season.