EFL Cup

STOKE ON TRENT, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 14: Claude Puel, Manager of Southampton looks on during the Premier League match between Stoke City and Southampton at Bet365 Stadium on December 14, 2016 in Stoke on Trent, England.  (Photo by Gareth Copley/Getty Images)
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Southampton’s Puel puts the pressure on Man United

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SOUTHAMPTON — Calm. Quiet. Focused.

Those are the best words to sum up not only Southampton’s manager Claude Puel most of the time, but especially this week. Think of that famous Seinfeld episode where Kramer learns to relax: “Serenity now!”

[ MORE: Saints’ journey goes full circle

For Puel, his first season managing in England has been far from relaxing. His team have already played 39 games this season across the Europa League group stage, FA Cup, EFL Cup and Premier League. The former Monaco, Lille, Lyon and Nice boss has now led his Southampton side to just the fourth major final in their 131-year history, as he has the chance to become just the second Saints manager to win a major trophy after Lawrie McMenemy in 1976 when they beat Manchester United to win the FA Cup and became heroes.

Serenity, now. The steely, soft spoken Frenchman is not getting distracted.

[ MORE: Latest EFL Cup final news ]

Puel has kept the focus on this game and he doesn’t want to talk about what it would be like to lead the team out at Wembley, even though he recognize the importance of the occasion.

Speaking exclusively to Pro Soccer Talk on a gloriously sunny late winter afternoon in Southern England, he has called for his team to write a new chapter in Southampton’s rather barren history book when it comes to trophies.

“It is an exciting game, I know the last win in the cup was 1976… it is time, perhaps to finally win another trophy,” Puel smiled. “I would like to, and all the players are with me, to give our fans a fantastic pleasure and enjoyment. It has been fantastic to see them always since the start of the season in every competition. To see 8,000 fans away at Inter Milan, it was fantastic. It will be a big reward and always our fans deserve a good result.

“For the moment it is important to keep our calm, a good concentration, good focus about our game. Just to think about the consequence of the result it would not be a good thing. It is important to play a strong game against this great team and to put in place a good collective, to defend together and also to take any opportunity to score and to go forward with danger.”

This week none of Southampton players have been permitted to speak with media outlets, with all of their pre-final interviews completed last week before they jetted off to Spain to enjoy a few days of intensive training in the sun. Saints are ready, prepared and focused.

Puel admitted his side are the underdogs against Jose Mourinho’s red-hot Manchester United this Sunday.

With United losing just one of their last 25 games in all competitions the pressure is is off Southampton, just like it was at Arsenal in the quarterfinal and especially in the semifinal victory against Liverpool.

“Yes, I think there is a big pressure for Manchester [United]” Puel said. “People expect a win for Manchester. We respect them but don’t fear team. In football all is possible. We saw this in the last game, the semifinal against Liverpool. We are the underdogs. I think it is important to respect them but to keep the good attitude and positive spirit and to believe in us. That’s the most important.”

The 55-year-old Frenchman won three French cups with Monaco as a player, while lost in the French League Cup final as a manager with Monaco in 2001. He hopes his experiences of playing and coaching in finals will help, even though it doesn’t stack up to Mourinho’s supreme trophy-wining ability.

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Over the two-legged semifinal against Liverpool, Saints had countless quality chances on the counter and although they beat Jurgen Klopp‘s side 1-0 home and away, they could’ve won more convincingly. The problem for Puel and Saints all season long has been being clinical. That create good chances but haven’t been finishing. New club-record signing Manolo Gabbiadini could be the difference on Sunday with the Italian international scoring three goals in two games since arriving in January from Napoli.

But Puel wants his team to be prepared to win anyway they can.

“All the games are different, sometimes we can have good possession and good set pieces, good possibilities,” Puel said. “Other games it is difficult, like against Liverpool because perhaps in the set pieces they were better than us. It is important for my players and my team to play with possibilities and the abilities with set pieces, possession and to counter-attack. I like that my players can have a good adaptation against any opponent. For me it is important to have the ability and capacity to play against any opponent, it is a good thing for the future.”

[ MORE: Latest EFL Cup final news

For the future, the prospect of Saints getting back into Europe is at the forefront of Puel’s mind. This season, their first in the Europa League group stage, they endured a disappointing exit on the total number of away goals scorer between themselves and Hapoel Be’er Sheva.

Reaching Europe for a third-straight season only appears possible through winning the EFL Cup as Southampton plod along in 11th place in the Premier League table. That’s something Puel wants, badly.

“For me it’s not just the opportunity to win a trophy, of course it is most important because a trophy is history and special. But for me the first thing in my mind is the opportunity to perhaps find again the European games next season, Puel explained. “It is most important to continue this work because we can play in different competitions this season, European games with young players and it was the first time they can play all these games. It will be interesting, very important to continue this work for next season and to find again possibilities to play these important games with change of teams and to have game time and to learn and improve with game time and maturity. All of this, for me, is this the most important to develop all of the squad.”

Can the Premier League form pick up if they win the EFL Cup?

“For the moment the Premier League has been frustrating,” Puel said. “Since the beginning of the season we can do good quality, good work without a good reward and without finding the good clinical without and with a lot of opportunities to score without conceding a lot of chances against us. Just before Boxing Day we were seventh place in the table, just two or three points off Manchester United. It is important to react and give a good answer. This final is an opportunity to give the season a good atmosphere, good spirit and a good reward for our fans and for our players also. In January and at the beginning of February we lost too many games. Which is is unusual for us.”

What is unusual for Puel is his current surroundings.

For a man who spent his entire 17-year playing career at Monaco, then 15 more years managing some of France’s top clubs, living on England’s South Coast is a little bit of a different proposition.

Still, Puel feels at home and enjoys being by the water in Hampshire and, most importantly, around knowledgeable fans who love their club passionately. Even if he can’t stroll down to the pub too often…

“It is difficult for me, like a lot of trainers I stay just focused about football. I read what Guardiola said, that it wasn’t possible for him to do anything else for 32 minutes. Perhaps for me it is 35 minutes,” Puel laughed. “It is a nice city, very interesting and I like the sea, it is the same as Monaco, for me.

“The weather is good, I was surprised because there is a lot of sun. Often I am surprised about this. I like this. I also like the atmosphere of the fans and people around the team, around the football, because I find that the fans know the football. They’re not just spectators. I like this. They give strong and fantastic opinions of the team and the players. I like this because it is a football country.”

Puel admitted that when he does get some free time, he’s been reminded by many how he and his players will become legends in the City of Southampton if they manage to upset United and joined the famous team of 1976 in the history books.

“We will see the result after this game. The most important thing is to focus about our game. The attitude of my players. It is important,” Puel said. “It is not me. That’s a shame, that I cannot play. It is fantastic for the fans and for the players to play in an exciting game. It is important to play this game with all the possibilities, attitude and a good spirit. To give their quality it is important they will stay focused.”

Focus is the buzzword around Southampton.

As a player at Monaco, Puel was (this will come as a huge shock) known for his focus, dedication and commitment. He was nicknamed “the dog” for his ferocious work as a midfield enforcer in Arsene Wenger‘s teams — to this day he is still good friends with the Arsenal manager — and tales of him flying into tackles in training with his players during his time at Lille, plus keeping up with them fitness-wise in drills, are commonplace around the French game.

Does he still join in with training now? Puel, somewhat begrudgingly, admitted he only fills in now and then when they need an extra man in games.

“Sometimes when I go to play on the pitch, sometimes the feeling of the player comes back,” Puel smiled. “It is difficult because now I have to be calm, I am a trainer… It is finished now, my playing. It is better.”

When you see him celebrate and jump up and down on the touchline during games as a manager, you get to understand a little more about his personality and his past as a player. Even if he isn’t box-office with quotes in his press conferences and is still mastering the English language, Puel is making his mark.

With Saints fans traveling from all over the world and snapping up tickets wherever they can to see their team in a major final at Wembley, Puel has a simple message for them.

All of the focus and hard work, it’s for them, and he is clearly blown away by the global reach of the Premier League.

“It is fantastic to have all of these fans all over the world,” Puel said. “The Premier League, before I came I knew it was a great championship with many fans in the world but when I see all this atmosphere, the positive atmosphere around the club with all the fans, I can just tell them thank you. I hope we can give them all the pleasure and enjoyment for this game.”

If Southampton win on Sunday, the quiet, calm Frenchman will be revered by every Southampton for the rest of his life and beyond. Perhaps that’s why he is so reluctant to think about leading the Saints to yet another famous upset in a final at Wembley against Manchester United.

Southampton’s journey goes full circle

BOURNEMOUTH, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 18:  Jay Rodriguez of Southampton (C) celebrates scoring his sides second goal with Maya Yoshida of Southampton (R) during the Premier League match between AFC Bournemouth and Southampton at Vitality Stadium on December 18, 2016 in Bournemouth, England.  (Photo by Michael Steele/Getty Images)
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It was the spring of 2010, March 28 to be exact, when it truly felt like Southampton Football Club was starting to stir back to life.

[ MORE: Projected lineups for EFL Cup final ] 

In front of 73,476 fans at Wembley Stadium (over 44,000 were Saints fans, plus many more embedded in the away end due to ticketing regulations) a side managed by Alan Pardew which included Morgan Schneiderlin, Jose Fonte, Adam Lallana, Michail Antonio and Rickie Lambert beat Carlisle United 4-1 to win the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy.

Seven years later they’re preparing for their first major final since 2003 and just their fourth in the past 41 years, as they face Manchester United at Wembley Stadium on Sunday.

Like a host of mid-size clubs in England, Southampton have historically felt they deserve to at least be in the top-flight and to each season challenge the established elite to win a trophy or at the very least reach a Wembley final. Now, after a humbling journey, they’re back to that.

[ MORE: Saints’ EFL semifinal victory vs. Liverpool extra sweet

Back in March 2010 Markus Liebherr (pictured, below) stood alongside the Southampton players lifting the JPT trophy in front of the Royal Box at Wembley. Liebherr single-handedly saved the club from extinction in 2009 when he bought them after they plunged into administration and were languishing in the third-tier of English soccer.

The billionaire businessman sadly passed away at the age of 62 in August 2010, leaving the club in the hands of his family, but as he took photos on his small personal camera of his team celebrating with the JPT trophy, over 44,000 fans celebrated in a sea of red and white at Wembley chanting his name. They knew the journey back to the top-flight, where they had previously spent 27-straight seasons, had begun.

Roll the clock forward seven years and a lot has changed, but a similar sea off red and white will adorn half of Wembley on Sunday as Saints requested a kit change to a special third-kit of white with red. Comparisons to the JPT final of 2010 will be made by many.

The trophy they’re competing for may be different this time around but the same feelings are present. Optimism is in the air for what lies ahead not just this weekend but for the future.

Saints were rescued in 2009 by German billionaire Markus Liebherr. Cortese was his right hand man and controlled the running of the club. Sadly Mr. Liebherr died in 2010, leaving the club in his daughter's hands.
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Liebherr’s legacy lives on (his name is still sung at every game by Southampton’s fans) heading into just the second League Cup final in their 131-year history. Their last appearance came back in 1979 when they lost to Nottingham Forest 3-2, just three years after they stunned Manchester United 1-0 to win the 1976 FA Cup as a second-tier club. Up until this point that was Southampton’s finest hour and the current squad would be held in the same regard if they could beat Man United for another famous final win.

[ MORE: Recapping Saints’ win at Arsenal

All week Saints legends of that 1976 team have popped up on TV, only too happy to acknowledge and talk about Southampton’s one and only major trophy which was won in remarkable fashion due to Bobby Stokes’ second half goal.

For generations of Sotonians that famous win against Manchester United has defined the club. They’ve grown up hearing about tales about Lawrie McMenemy, Nick Holmes, Mick Channon, Stokes, Peter Osgood and Peter Rodrigues. That underdog spirit from ’76 will be in full force once again among their 33,000-plus fans at the home of English soccer this weekend.

Saints are back where they feel they belong.

“It’s about time we should really get to a final,” club captain Steven Davis told Pro Soccer Talk after their quarterfinal win at Arsenal in December, which then led to a semifinal against Liverpool which Saints impressively won over two legs.

Their journey to the EFL Cup final has been just as impressive as they’ve beaten Premier League opposition on every step of the way without conceding a goal, just the second team in history to reach a League Cup final doing so.

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Their journey from a third-tier team in 2009 to a team now consistently finishing in the top 10 of the Premier League and aiming for a third-straight season with European qualification has been arduous, even if it has seemed rapid.

It has been riddled with high-profile departures, changes and lofty expectations. Saints have met most of the latter and dealt with the former admirably.

Behind-the-scenes many have worked tirelessly to drive them back to become an established Premier League team, with Executive Chairman Les Reed taking over the leading role and putting in place an envious scouting network and academy system which consistently produces gems.

Heading into Sunday’s clash against powerhouse Manchester United, the fans, players and current manager, Claude Puel, know that Jose Mourinho’s superstars are the heavy favorites.

They’re fine with that.

LONDON, ENGLAND - MARCH 28: Southampton celebrate after winning the Johnstone's Paint Trophy Final between Southampton and Carlisle United at Wembley Stadium on March 28, 2010 in London, England. (Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)
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Of course, Liebherr’s investment in Southampton brought financial wealth and the ability for Saints to build a stunning new training center (the main building of which is named the Markus Liebherr Pavilion) to house its world renowned academy, but it also allowed them to step back to where the fans and club felt they belonged. And then some.

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Saints splash middle-range cash to sign stars from Europe others don’t want to take a risk on (see: Sadio Mane, Dejan Lovren, Graziano Pelle) then spend time developing them before often selling them on for a huge profit. Their model is admired across the world and both financially and on the pitch it has created great success for a club of Southampton’s size and stature within the Premier League. It’s true that they spent most of their previous time in the Premier League from 1992-2005 battling relegation but now they’re back, they’re hungry to squeeze every ounce of potential out of the club.

Southampton are determined to make the most of their second chance after nearly ceasing to exist.

Sure, this season they’ve slumped a little in the Premier League, with the rigors of their disappointing Europa League group stage exit, an EFL Cup run and untimely injuries thwarting the progress of Puel’s men in the Frenchman’s first season in charge. Yet, they’ve carried on progressing in other ways off the field with huge commercial deals with companies such as Virgin Media, Under Armour and others continuing their impressive growth, plus talk of huge investment from China ongoing.

On the pitch the signings of attackers Sofiane Boufal and Manolo Gabbiadini look like very shrewd investments, once again, while they possess hugely profitable talents in Virgil Van Dijk, Oriol Romeu and Dusan Tadic as a smattering of academy products continue to develop into steady PL players.

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - JANUARY 25: Shane Long of Southampton (not pictured) celebrates with team mates after scoring his sides first goal during the EFL Cup Semi-Final Second Leg match between Liverpool and Southampton at Anfield on January 25, 2017 in Liverpool, England. (Photo by Julian Finney/Getty Images)
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Saints have locked down top talent (Tadic, Shane Long, Van Dijk, Davis, Ryan Bertrand) to new deals and the future is looking steady and secure. Yet, there’s just been one thing missing in their rise through the leagues and into Europe over the past few years: silverware.

Speaking to journalists in the tunnel at the Emirates Stadium earlier this year after Saints had beaten Arsenal in the quarterfinal on their march to Wembley, England international Ryan Bertrand explained that the players knew it’s about time the club got back to a final.

“It would be massive [to win the EFL Cup]. For the club, the massive rise that they’ve had from League One, as soon as the switch has turned they’ve seen success after success,” Bertrand said. “It’s not something that’s overdue, the silverware, but it is something that’s about the right time.”

It has taken them time but now they’re back where they believe they should be, a team which can finish just outside the perennial top six and challenge for trophies. On their day Saints can beat any team in the Premier League and they’ve done it in this cup run, dispatching Arsenal and Liverpool in the last two rounds to get to this point.

Whatever happens on Sunday at Wembley, Southampton’s progression into a top 10 side in the Premier League that can challenge for trophies should not be overlooked.

Just under seven years on from winning a trophy solely consisting of teams from the third and fourth tiers of English soccer, Southampton can secure their first piece of major silverware since 1976 and just the second-ever in its history.

It will be a big ask to beat a Man United side which has lost just once in their last 25 games in all competitions, especially without team captain and star central defender Virgil van Dijk and top scorer Charlie Austin who both miss out through injury. But then again, Southampton are used to upsetting the odds and proving everyone wrong.

They’ve spent seven-straight years doing just that.

Sunday’s final represents the biggest stage yet for Southampton to show just how far they’ve come since their second-coming began almost seven years ago at Wembley Stadium.

This journey has gone full circle.

LONDON, ENGLAND - MARCH 28: Southampton captain Dean Hammond and goalkeeper Kelvin Davis lift the trophy after winning the Johnstone's Paint Trophy Final between Southampton and Carlisle United at Wembley Stadium on March 28, 2010 in London, England. (Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)
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Man United’s Mkhitaryan, Carrick likely out of EFL Cup final

SAINT-ETIENNE, FRANCE - FEBRUARY 22:  Henrikh Mkhitaryan of Manchester United leaves the field with an injury and is replaced by Marcus Rashford of Manchester United during the UEFA Europa League Round of 32 second leg match between AS Saint-Etienne and Manchester United at Stade Geoffroy-Guichard on February 22, 2017 in Saint-Etienne, France.  (Photo by Christopher Lee/Getty Images)
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This was the last thing Jose Mourinho wanted.

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Both Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Michael Carrick hobbled out of Manchester United’s routine 1-0 win at Saint-Etienne in the UEFA Europa League on Wednesday, leaving them as major doubts for Sunday’s EFL Cup final at Wembley against Southampton.

Mkhitaryan scored the only goal of the game early on in their Round of 32 second leg but the Armenian playmaker hobbled off moments later appearing to hold his hamstring.

He was not carried off the pitch but the former Borussia Dortmund star looked far from comfortable as he headed for the tunnel. Carrick also walked off in the second half after suffering a calm problem and both are struggling.

Speaking after the game Mourinho confirmed the duo are unlikely to feature.

“You can be injured leaving your house or injured in the garden. You never know when and why,” Mourinho said. “I say what I think and with three days, with a hamstring and a calf, I always think three days is no time.”

Mourinho later added in his press conference that the duo “have no chance” of being fit for Sunday and said that feeling was “based on my experience, not on my medical knowledge.”

Mkhitaryan, 28, has been a key part of United’s resurgence in recent weeks but it now appears highly unlikely that he will be available for their EFL Cup final at Wembley against Southampton this Sunday.

It’s not like United don’t have other attacking options with Marcus Rashford, Jesse Lingard, Wayne Rooney and Anthony Martial in reserve, but there’s no doubting that Mkhitaryan has provided an X-factor in recent weeks with his slick passing and trickery in the final third.

As for Carrick, either Marouane Fellaini or Bastian Schweinsteiger will come into the starting lineup for the final alongside Ander Herrera to add some extra bite to midfield. There’s no doubt United will miss Carrick’s calming influence on the ball in a deep-lying position.

We will wait to see how serious both injuries are but it’s not ideal for Mourinho as his side continue to fight for the EFL Cup, Europa League, FA Cup and, most importantly, for a top four finish in the Premier League.

Wayne Rooney set for Manchester United return

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Wayne Rooney is back in business.

Well, almost.

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With rumors continuing to swirl that Rooney, 31, will leave Manchester United at the end of February and join the Chinese Super League, United’s captain is back in training ahead of their UEFA Europa League Round of 32 second leg tie at St. Etienne on Wednesday.

Rooney hasn’t played for United since Feb. 1 in the 0-0 draw against Hull City in the Premier League as he first picked up a muscle injury and then needed dental treatment to fix a root canal issue. United haven’t struggled recently in their last four games without Rooney as Jose Mourinho’s men remain 16 games unbeaten in the Premier League.

United’s all-time leading scorer was seen training in Manchester on Tuesday but, alongside Chris Smalling and Michael Carrick, Rooney trained in a separate group from the rest of the squad.

That suggests Rooney may not feature against St. Etienne in France on Wednesday with United 3-0 up from the first leg and all but through to the last 16 of the Europa League.

Rooney’s potential return will boost Mourinho’s attacking options ahead of the EFL Cup final against Southampton at Wembley on Sunday.

But does he really need him?

With Zlatan Ibrahimovic in fine form, plus Anthony Martial, Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Marcus Rashford all chipping in with goals and assists in Rooney’s absence the England and United legend may find it tough to just make the bench for the EFL Cup final.

If he’s fit enough, Mourinho will surely give Rooney at least a place on the bench. Who knows, it could be his final chance to lift a trophy as United’s captain before he departs.

Rooney’s time at United appears to be coming towards an end, be it now or in the summer, but surely he’d like to lead them out at Wembley at least one more time and lift his 11th major title as a Red Devil.

Jose Mourinho’s alternative facts: “We didn’t lose”

HULL, ENGLAND - JANUARY 26:  Jose Mourinho manager of Manchester United looks on from the bench with coaching staff prior to the EFL Cup Semi-Final second leg match between Hull City and Manchester United at KCOM Stadium on January 26, 2017 in Hull, England.  (Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images)
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Ask Jose Mourinho how Manchester United got on against Hull City on Thursday.

Go ahead. Ask him.

[ MORE: Saints’ sweet victory v Liverpool

The official scoreline states Hull won 2-1 in the EFL Cup semifinal second leg at the KCOM Stadium but speaking after the game Mourinho refused to count the first half penalty kick Hull scored because he felt it shouldn’t have been awarded.

As far as Mourinho is concerned his team remains 18 games unbeaten…

“I think 18 matches unbeaten is amazing. We didn’t lose,” Mourinho said. “It was 1-1, 1-1. I only saw two goals. I saw [Paul] Pogba’s goal and their goal was fantastic goal, great action. Great cross, and the guy in far post coming, 1-1.”

Speaking on his 54th birthday, the Portuguese coach was at his eccentric best as his side sealed their passage to the EFL Cup final courtesy of a 3-2 aggregate victory. They will face Southampton on Feb. 26 at Wembley Stadium.

It appears on the surface that Mourinho’s comments are trying to cover up a lackluster display from his side who could’ve easily blown their chance at reaching the first domestic cup final of the season.

United will be heavy favorites against Southampton next month and Mourinho has the chance to become just the third manager in history (Sir Alex Ferguson and Brian Clough are the others) to win the League Cup for a fourth time.

If Mourinho ever wants to consider a career change, perhaps his version of “alternative facts” could see him heading to the White House sometime soon…