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Ralph Krueger on Southampton taking the next step

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Southampton’s chairman Ralph Krueger is ready to do whatever it takes to take his club to the next step.

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That includes holding on to their top talent, searching for significant new investment and striving to take the “Southampton Way” to each corner of the globe.

ProSoccerTalk spoke exclusively to Krueger ahead of Saints’ final two games of the season, the first of which is at home against Manchester United on Wednesday (Watch live, 2:45 p.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com), and the former NHL coach was eager to point out that the club does not have to sell any players this summer.

After the likes of Adam Lallana, Luke Shaw, Sadio Mane and others moved on in recent summers, Virgil Van Dijk has been linked with a $65 million transfer to Manchester City, Chelsea, Arsenal and Liverpool. The Dutch international defender only signed a new six-year deal last summer and Southampton has no plans to sell their team captain despite daily reports suggesting he is on his way.

“I don’t get frustrated by those kind of reports. There might be some disrespect in those reports,” Krueger explained. “To take you back to the 2013-14 season when this present management team started changing the way the club was being operated, the team had come up very, very quickly. Everything was done up until that date very well but there was only a maximum of 15 high-level Premier League players in the team. We ended up in three summers worth of transfer markets, where we needed to net in players where we needed in increase our depth charts. I think that phase of the club ended last summer.

“We would sell five, buy eight. Sell six, buy nine and so on all the way through those three years. We had made a commitment to ownership to live within our means, which we have been doing. Now, we have every position doubled up and we have at least 25 players. More important than anything we have 18 players on contract with three years or more. In that first season, one of the weaknesses of the club was how short all of the contracts were. There was just a handful of players locked in beyond two years. Now we have 18 players locked in. We have 12 players actually with 49 months or more and two with 61 months.”

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights

Krueger explained clearly that Southampton do not need to sell Van Dijk, or anyone else, this summer.

“We do not need to sell a player this summer,” Krueger said. “Any transfer in and out now will be to increase the quality of the squad and do what is best for the club. I have to tell you, straight up, we do not have to sell anybody. We will do our best to retain the core, solidify the core and move with some synergy into next season.”

Assessing their season so far, Krueger was asked if he believed Saints have almost become a victim of their own success after finishing sixth and seventh in each of the past two seasons, qualifying for Europe on both occasions and handling key exits admirably.

[ MORE: Saints’ fans take over Milan, San Siro ]

Some fans are frustrated with the brand of play under new manager Claude Puel and inconsistent displays, despite reaching a first major final since 2003 and coming within one goal of making the Europa League knockout stages.

Still, Saints can finish in eighth place in the PL this season which would be their fourth-straight campaign of finishing in the top eight of the PL. They’ve only been back in the top-flight for five seasons, so has the fact that the club established themselves as a top half of the table team so quickly hurt them?

Krueger welcomes the criticism from fans and pointed to the fact that this is a young team — Saints’ starting lineup has the second youngest average age in the PL — which will improve.

“We are probably a victim of our own hunger to always continually evolve and grow. I think what our fans have shown is okay and as chairman I actually see that as a hunger that stops us from being complacent and actually pushes us forward,” Krueger said. “It is fine. It is part of the natural evolution of a winning team. So you go from 8th to 7th to 6th and the 8th place three years ago was a celebration and a huge party and here we are having a chance of eighth or ninth at the end of the season and fans may say that’s not enough. It shows that we are now an established Premier League team with a fanbase that wants to see that.

“Overall, the EFL Cup final was an amazing experience, being in Wembley with our fans who were absolute world champions on that day with the love for the club you could feel through that stadium. The performance of the team, it was disappointing with the loss, but it was still encouraging as to what is possible on a given day with our team. Europe, we would have liked to have seen that gone on a little further but it didn’t, and the Premier League if we do finish in single digits we have to say it’s another good year for Southampton. We feel that it was a year of development and growth of our young squad and there is so much excitement going into 2017-18 that we are ready to go at it on May 22 already. We want to start the process. Overall it was another fascinating year of growth for our club.”

With plenty of speculation regarding manager Claude Puel and him potentially being fired at the end of this season, his first-ever in England, Krueger refused to talk about whether the Frenchman will be shown the exit door at St Mary’s.

“With the importance of these two final home games in five days, we leave it to the football people at the club. My past is hockey. My job here is to lead the club on a cultural and political level and be the connection and representative of ownership, so I leave the football side to do that,” Krueger said. “Next week, like every year, they will do a complete debrief and they decompose the whole season and look at it from every angle. They will be very transparent in how we need to move forward. I trust the people we have there, with Les Reed and Ross Wilson we have really good people at the lead.

“Claude has been a part of everything that has happened this year. It is really going to be the players or however else, it is up to football to give us the final grade and then we will see how we go forward.”

When it comes to pushing forward, Krueger confirmed that talks have been ongoing regarding potential investment in the club as Chinese investment group Lander Sports has been in talks with regards to providing extra funds to help current owner Katharina Liebherr (her later father, Markus, saved Southampton from extinction in the third-tier in 2008) take the club to the next level.

Talks about new investment remains ongoing, and will continue to do so, but Krueger confirmed that any investment will only happen if certain conditions are met.

Katharina did release a statement in January and that hasn’t changed in so far as we’ve been multiple months now into a process of looking into potential investment under a few clear parameters,” Krueger explained. “One of them is that Katharina stays involved and the other one is that the investor definitely brings in the qualities that will help us get to another level and that will empower the club. Even though the process was initially new, we have become extremely comfortable that we’ve set up our strategy and we are finalizing now and will be done at the beginning of next week, that strategy is not connected to potential investment or not.

“With the status quo, Katharina staying and us not finding the proper partner to move forward, or the same way as if a partner entered. The only way the partner will enter here is with the acceptance of our present culture, with the management team staying intact and continually moving on the strategy we are on and the culture we have. That is a given and a guaranteed step going forward.

“It could happen and long term if it does happen it will give us growth and if doesn’t happen in the next few months we are going to continue with that process. It is just part of the maturing of the club and strengthening of the club. It is normal. In North America it is a normal business development that happens within the club structure and here the fans are just getting used to this process. We feel really strongly positioned going forward right now.”

Such is his belief in Saints’ project, Krueger revealed that he turned down two jobs in the NHL over the postseason as the man who led Team Europe to an unlikely World Cup of Hockey final in September 2016 against Canada still believes there is plenty left for Saints to achieve under his leadership.

“It was nice and honorable that I was offered two NHL jobs post-season and I was happy they didn’t forget about me but I turned them down,” Krueger said. “It just feels like we’ve only just got started here and especially with the management re-organization we just did, there is kind of like there’s something here where we are going to take it to another level.

“I still love the game and I have lots of friends still in the playoffs, I am keeping a close eye on them. My son is playing at the World Ice Hockey Championships for Germany right now in Germany and all of that… but it is Southampton. At the moment this is doing it. I don’t think you ever close the door on anything in your life but I love being here.”

Krueger confirmed that Saints will not be going on a tour of the U.S. anytime soon (the squad went on a brief trip to Baltimore last summer to visit their partners Under Armour) but they continue their growth in the U.S. with the ‘Southampton Cup’ youth tournament being set up in December in Baltimore and he admitted their image overseas is changing all the time.

“We are continuing to develop our teaching arm of the club and we have multiple clubs and development academies we are partnering with in the U.S. and we are looking at some in Canada,” Krueger said. “It is the teaching arm of the club which can help our growth worldwide at the moment. Until we get some trophies in our cabinet, on a worldwide basis we have respect for the ability to develop players and teach the game.

“We are also looking at opportunities in Africa, India and China. Our growth in the U.S. with the ‘Southampton Cup’ here in and then in December in Baltimore with over 100 clubs competing, those kind of platforms are what we are all about. We are an authentic brand living within our means and building in a small market, kind of like the Green Bay Packers environment. That gives us a romance.

“I was just speaking to someone the other day and our name, Southampton, being in the top half of the table for over four years, where only six teams have been, it is something that is helping our brand grow and evolve around the world. You can feel it changing. There is a shift in the last 12 months to the respect that we get when we go outside the country. It is nice but now we would like to, on the pitch, push back into Europe next season and we think if we can keep our team together we have a good shot at doing that.”

Krueger also confirmed that Saints’ “next dream is some face-lifting and upgrading” of St Mary’s and that the size of the stadium will remain the same for the time being, while he also lauded their commercial growth.

“The partnerships with Under Armour, Virgin Media, SportPesa, the international side of it, I have to say it is very exciting to look at our numbers. We have almost quadrupled our commercial revenue here in the last four years,” Krueger said. “That should continue to accelerate, what is interesting is that through this teaching arm in the we are going to build some commercial partnerships too which will help our final product on the pitch of course.”

Everything at Southampton, from the youth development, commercial growth and potential investment in the club seems to be incredibly healthy.

Now, as Krueger said, the most important thing is the product on the pitch. When the PL season finishes on May 21, everyone at Saints will already be preparing for next season. That means navigating yet another summer of speculation and figuring out how they can continue to punch above their weight.

“We are driving all of our different departments forward and on May 22, I swear, it is right back at it,” Krueger laughed. “With the teams that are coming up from the Championship it is going to be extremely competitive again next year. Nobody is going to give us any points anywhere and we have to add five percent everywhere just to keep the status quo. So to go beyond that we have to add 10 percent.

“It’s wherever I can help… but it seems like something new pops up every week that you don’t expect! That’s the nature of the Premier League and especially summer transfers windows which are always exciting but we’d like to be a little bit of the sideshow this year instead of a main stage. We are ready for everything and we are strongly positioned for this one.”

Lukaku rejects big comparisons: “I can’t say I’m in my prime”

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Romelu Lukaku has bagged a bunch of goals and played on three Premier League teams, but knows there’s another level to his game as he opens up life at Manchester United.

Rejecting comparisons to big strikers like Didier Drogba (because they’re different style players) and Robert Lewandowski (because he’s not yet at that level), Lukaku gave his thoughts about his career’s next steps.

[ MORE: Q&A with Edin Dzeko ]

Lukaku didn’t score in the PL for Chelsea, but has a 17-goal campaign on loan to West Bromwich Albion as well as 15-, 10-, 18-, and 25-goal seasons for Everton.

From Sky Sports:

“I’m 24 years of age, I cannot say I am the complete package, I can’t say I’m in my prime.

“There is still a lot of work to be done and I am delighted there is still a lot of work to be done. That means I can become even better than I am now.”

Lukaku most needs consistency in his game. Even in his massive campaign last season, he twice went four matches without a goal. While it’s possible to have fine performances but not find finish, Everton went 1W-3D-4L in those combined stretches and five of those matches were against bottom half sides.

Something tells us having Paul Pogba, Juan Mata, Henrikh Mkhitaryan, and Marcus Rashford setting him up could help, too.

Q&A: Edin Dzeko on Roma, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Champions League

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PST spoke to a quartet of AS Roma players this week as the club contends the 2017 International Champions Cup in the United States with the aim of a profile piece on i Lupi captain Daniele De Rossi’s quest for an elusive scudetto.

That piece came out well, but the conversations with some of his teammates were just as fun. While Kevin Strootman’s resilience and Hector Moreno’s Mexican ambassador status neatly fit into individual posts, our talk with ex-Man City striker and reigning Capocannoniere winner Edin Dzeko works better in Q&A form.

[ MORE: How will Chicharito slot in at West Ham? ]

Plenty has changed since Dzeko scored in Man City’s wild title-clinching finish against QPR. Dzeko talked about his surprising and explosive 29-goal Serie A season, his interest in a UEFA Champions League return to the Etihad Stadium, and a love for representing his home nation of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Enjoy.

PST: Obviously we know your quality from having scored 25-plus goals three times in seasons at Wolfsburg and Manchester City, but what was it like going from 10 goals to 39 in your second season at Roma?

Edin Dzeko: “It was definitely one of the best in my career. When you get up in your years you are supposed to go down, but actually I’ve gone up. I felt good and from the beginning of preseason I trained hard and it was an important season after getting to know the qualities of the teams and players in the league after my first season in Italy. Last year was big proof of it and like it always is, it was harder than it looked.”

PST: You’ve won the Bundesliga and the Premier League, the latter twice. Last season you shaved Juventus’ table advantage to four points. Can this be the year?

Dzeko: “I have hope that I can do the same in Italy. It’s definitely not easy with Juventus having it the last few years and not selling, only buying new players. Last season was really good for us. We were very close but we still dropped some easy points against the small teams and that cost us at the end. Next year we play Champions League. We changed coaches and a few players left and others came so we have to gather up to the new style of the coach and the new players have to learn what it is to play in Italy. Hopefully this season can be better than last, but we have to go step-by-step.”

(Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images)

PST: Wolfsburg had never won, and Man City hadn’t in 40-plus years. Can those experiences help in pushing Roma to its first scudetto since 2001?

Dzeko: “Hopefully. Also when I went to City and we won the first and second title, the team was probably was one of the best in England where it’s also not so easy to win the title. I have another three years contract in Rome and this town and these fans deserve a title. It’s such a shame, every year without a title for this club.”

PST: What would it mean?

Dzeko: “It would mean everything. Hopefully we will manage to do this in the next few years, but it would mean everything to them. I’d habe a lot of good feelings if Roma would manage to win the title. It would be amazing for all the players. They will love us and never forget. The people in Rome, they live for football. They live for us.”

PST: Hector Moreno mentioned that hunger in training was evident in just the few days he’s been there.

Dzeko: “You have to be hungry for good things because it’s a new young team, a new coach, and the team is step-by-step building itself in new directions. We lost four, five players from last seasons so it’s never easy to bring seven, eight new players and immediately work it out. So this preseason is important.”

(Photo by Marco Rosi/Getty Images)

PST: You’re Bosnia and Herzegovina’s all-time leading scorer, and you seem to relish international breaks and pulling on the shirt. 

Dzeko: “I’m proud of myself for what I’ve achieved because I remember when I was young and I was looking to the players, my idols, who were playing with Bosnia and Herzegovina. It’s something special, we can take it to heart and I’m proud that I can be the idol of some young boys in Bosnia that can still believe they can do some good things and positive stuff in the future. When someone from our small country goes out and plays in a league like Italy, it gives the confidence for the rest of the young people that they can know that everything is possible.”

PST: You’re also pretty active in causes around Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Dzeko: “It’s important for me because it’s my country, it’s the country that gave me everything, where I grew up for 18 years before I left for Czech Republic first and then Germany, England, Italy. I want to help the people who need help because I have the possibility to do it. I will always be there for them and I’m also the UNICEF ambassador that makes me even more proud because I love kids.”

PST: Finally, Roma is in a different pot than Manchester City for this year’s UEFA Champions League. Would you like to be drawn with your old team, or prefer the clubs stay separate?

Dzeko: “I would love it, to be fair. I would love to go back there and even against City I bring so many good memories from the beautiful days and my connection with the fans and club. I would definitely look forward to it.”

Reports: Swans rebuff Everton bid for Sigurdsson; want $65M

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What’s $7-13 million amongst peers?

Swansea City has reportedly shot down either a $52 and/or a $58 million Everton bid for Gylfi Sigurdsson, offers that falls shy of Swans’ $65 million asking price.

$65 million? Why that’s almost Benjamin Mendy money.

Either way, with Sigurdsson absent from Swansea’s U.S. tour, a move seems predetermined.

[ SERIE A: Can De Rossi help Roma catch Juve? ]

The BBC says Monday’s offer was the $52m price, and that it was Everton’s first offer, though The Guardian says it’s a second $58m bid from Everton for the Icelandic playmaker who almost single-handedly ensured the Welsh side’s Premier League status last season.

Reports of an initial $52 million bid also came earlier this month.

Sigurdsson, 27, scored nine goals last season and teamed with Fernando Llorente to form a potent duo. He first made his PL impression with seven goals during a half-season loan from Hoffenheim, and moved to Spurs for a tumultuous two seasons.

He’s since recorded seven-, 11-, and 9-goal seasons for Swans.

Everton has spent big this summer and look set to have the depth to compete in both the Premier League and UEFA Europa League.

VIDEO: Chicharito talks West Ham signing, opener at Manchester United

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Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez is back in the Premier League, and will debut for his new club at the home of his old club.

The league schedulers didn’t know the Mexican striker would be a member of West Ham United on Opening Day, but nonetheless have the first weekend ending with an 11 a.m. ET kickoff between the Irons and Red Devils of Manchester United at Old Trafford.

[ MORE: How will Chicharito slot in at West Ham? ]

Combine a new home with an old haunt, and you’ve got one fired up Little Pea:

“A little bit more than my teammates probably, of course to be back to Old Trafford to start this adventure this season with my new team. It’s gonna be a very important one and I’m going to be very happy to be there.”

Hear more from the latest West Ham buy below: