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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Southampton’s journey goes full circle

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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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Real Madrid adds intrigue to La Liga race with rare loss (video)

Real Madrid's Cristiano Ronaldo, right, and Real Madrid's Lucas Vazquez, left, react after failing to score against Valencia during the Spanish La Liga soccer match between Valencia and Real Madrid at the Mestalla stadium in Valencia, Spain, Wednesday, Feb. 22, 2017. (AP Photo/Alberto Saiz)
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The lone Wednesday match on La Liga’s docket injected some drama back into the chase for Spain’s crown.

Real Madrid fell 2-1 at Valencia, unable to overcome conceding twice in the first 10 minutes.

The match was one of two matches-in-hand Real held on its rivals for La Liga’s title. Now Real’s one-point lead over Barcelona and three-point advantage over Sevilla seem a bit more manageable.

[ MORE: Man Utd onto Europa Rd of 16 ]

Simone Zaza and Fabian Orellana netted for Los Che, but Cristiano Ronaldo’s 44th minute goal was the only answer the leaders could muster before full time.

Zaza’s goal was a stunner:

Real could rebuild its lead over the weekend, with Barcelona off to Atletico Madrid on Sunday and Sevilla traveling to Betis on the heels of its UCL win over Leicester City.

But for now, life’s a bit more exciting in Spain. Real hosts Barcelona on April 23, and hosts Sevilla on the penultimate weekend of the season.

Standings

 

Team GP W D L GF GA GD Home Away PTS
 Real Madrid 22 16 4 2 57 20 37 10-2-0 6-2-2 52
 Barcelona 23 15 6 2 63 19 44 7-3-1 8-3-1 51
 Sevilla 23 15 4 4 46 28 18 9-1-1 6-3-3 49
 Atlético Madrid 23 13 6 4 43 19 24 8-2-1 5-4-3 45
 Real Sociedad 23 13 2 8 36 32 4 7-2-3 6-0-5 41
 Villarreal 23 10 9 4 30 15 15 7-3-2 3-6-2 39

Zaza scores stunning goal for Valencia vs. Real Madrid

TURIN, ITALY - SEPTEMBER 23:  Simone Zaza (C) of Juventus FC celebrates after scring the opening goal during the Serie A match between Juventus FC and Frosinone Calcio at Juventus Arena on September 23, 2015 in Turin, Italy.  (Photo by Valerio Pennicino/Getty Images)
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Simone Zaza scored a stunner for Valencia against Real Madrid in La Liga.

Yes, that Simone Zaza.

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The Italian international striker, 25, spent the best part of six months on loan at West Ham United this season and just didn’t look interested as he failed to score in 11 appearances in all competitions. That prompted Slaven Bilic and the Hammers to cancel his loan deal from Juventus and the forward then joined Valencia in La Liga in January.

Fans of West Ham will be scratching their heads when watching the video below as Zaza swiveled and smashed home a perfect volley to put Valencia 1-0 up against Real at the Mestalla on Wednesday.

Simply sublime.


FA Cup roundup: Man City toothless vs. Huddersfield; Boro win wild one

HUDDERSFIELD, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 18: Josep Guardiola, Manager of Manchester City looks on prior to The Emirates FA Cup Fifth Round match between Huddersfield Town and Manchester City at John Smith's Stadium on February 18, 2017 in Huddersfield, England.  (Photo by Gareth Copley/Getty Images)
Photo by Gareth Copley/Getty Images
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A roundup of Saturday’s action in the fifth round of the FA Cup (thus far)…

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s PL coverage ]

Middlesbrough 3-2 Oxford United

Aitor Karanka‘s side went from 2-0 up (Grant Leadbitter and Rudy Gestede), to level with League One side Oxford United at 2-2, in the space of 90 second-half seconds. The last thing Middlesbrough would have wanted was a fifth-round replay shoehorned into their upcoming fixtures list which already features a tough relegation battle (they currently sit 16th in the Premier League, just two points clear of 18th-place Hull City). Cristhian Stuani rescued them from that reality with his late winner, in the 86th minute, to send Boro through to their first FA Cup quarterfinals appearance since 2009.

MIDDLESBROUGH, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 18: Toni Martinez of Oxford United celebrates scoring his sides second goal with his Oxford United team mates during The Emirates FA Cup Fifth Round match between Middlesbrough and Oxford United at Riverside Stadium on February 18, 2017 in Middlesbrough, England. (Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images)
(Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images)

[ MORE: Fifth-division Lincoln City shock PL side Burnley in FA Cup ]

Huddersfield 0-0 Manchester City

The lineup was first-choice, but the result far worse than second-rate for Manchester City, as Pep Guardiola‘s side proved the definition of toothless and uninspiring in their 0-0 draw away to Championship side Huddersfield Town. 63 percent of possession was converted into fewer than a handful of clear-cut scoring chances, and the absolute last thing Man City needed — a replay smack dab in the middle of a suddenly congested fixtures list (they begin their UEFA Champions League round of 16 tie against Monaco on Tuesday) — has come to pass.

HUDDERSFIELD, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 18: Sergio Aguero of Manchester City (C) and Mark Hudson of Huddersfield Town (R) both stretch to reach the balll during The Emirates FA Cup Fifth Round match between Huddersfield Town and Manchester City at John Smith's Stadium on February 18, 2017 in Huddersfield, England. (Photo by Gareth Copley/Getty Images)
(Photo by Gareth Copley/Getty Images)

[ MORE: Wenger says he’ll manage next season, at Arsenal or not ]

Millwall 1-0 Leicester City

A miserable, relegation-threatened season got (somehow) worse for Leicester City on Saturday, as they bowed out of the FA Cup following a 1-0 defeat at the hands of 10-man (for nearly 40 minutes) League One side Millwall. Shaun Cummings scored the game’s only goal, in the 90th minute, and the best possible thing that could have propped up the Foxes’ 2016-17 season has gone.

LONDON, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 18: Shaun Cummings of Millwall (C) celebrates scoring his sides first goal with his Millwall team mates during The Emirates FA Cup Fifth Round match between Millwall and Leicester City at The Den on February 18, 2017 in London, England. (Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images)
(Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images)

Elsewhere in the FA Cup

Burnley 0-1 Lincoln City — RECAP | REACTION

Saturday’s FA Cup schedule

Wolverhampton Wanderers vs. Chelsea — 12:30 p.m. ET — FOLLOW LIVE

Sunday’s FA Cup schedule

Fulham vs. Tottenham Hotspur — 9 a.m. ET
Blackburn Rovers vs. Manchester United — 11:15 a.m. ET

Monday’s FA Cup schedule

Sutton United vs. Arsenal — 2:55 p.m. ET

West Ham has top two coaches charged by FA

West Ham United manager Slaven Bilic shouts during the English Premier League soccer match between West Ham United and West Bromwich Albion at London Stadium, Saturday, Feb. 11, 2017.  (Scott Heavey/PA via AP)
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The next step toward a suspension for West Ham’s top two dugout men happened Monday, as both manager Slaven Bilic and assistant Nikola Jurcevic were charged by the FA.

Jurcevic found himself sent to the stands after leaving the technical area and charging down the touchline to argue with officials who disallowed a West Ham goal.

[ MORE: Pogba family battle looms Thursday ]

West Brom tied late, and Bilic lost his mind. The West Ham manager picked up a fuzzy boom mic and threw it to the field.

If both are suspended, West Ham could turn to first team coach Edin Terzic or goalkeeper coach Chris Woods against Watford on Feb. 25.

Terzic, 33, was with Borussia Dortmund’s Academy before moving to Besiktas to join Bilic’s staff. Woods was with Everton from 1998 until 2013, when he joined David Moyes at Manchester United.