Premier League Preview: Southampton vs. Fulham

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  • Fulham have only beaten Southampton once in the league in history, that 2-1 win came in 1935
  • The Saints have the second best defense in Europe’s top five leagues, conceding just twice
  • Southampton’s tally of 15 points is their best start to a season since 1983-84… when they finished second in England’s top-flight

On Saturday at St. Mary’s Stadium, Southampton take on Fulham (12:30pm ET, watch live on NBCSN and online via NBC Sports Live Extra) with both teams high in confidence following recent success.

The Saints are sitting pretty in fifth spot, with just one defeat from their eight Premier League games so far, and a terrific last-gasp point away against Manchester United last week. Southampton are this seasons surprise package. As for Fulham, well, manager Martin Jol looked to be on his way out before the recent international break…

But following two-straight wins against Stoke and Crystal Palace, Jol is sitting much easier as his talented, yet aging, squad finally delivered.

So, what has been the key to Saints’ success? Hard-work and pressing high up the pitch has been the mantra for Mauricio Pochettino’s men and it’s worked a treat so far, with wins against Liverpool, Swansea, Crystal Palace and West Brom to show for it. However Fulham will present a different challenge than most of the other teams as the Cottagers like to sit back and soak up the pressure.

That may force the Saints to change their incredibly successful tactics they’ve employed thus far.

The only worry for Fulham is that they might have used up all their wonder goals in one game on Monday night, as they hammered London rivals Palace 4-1 thanks to a screamer from Pajtim Kasami and terrific finishes from Steve Sidwell and Philippe Senderos.

It will be a close game down on the South Coast, with both teams solid defensively and possessing games changers galore. Don’t miss it.

Team news for Saints is that Northern Ireland captain Steven Davis could miss out, while Luke Shaw has shrugged off a virus and will be fit. For Fulham, Bryan Ruiz will miss out and Brede Hangeland is looking doubtful with a back injury.

What they’re saying

Saints defender Jose Fonte on their maturity: “The stick that we got last year from the critics made us work harder. The whole team has a style of pressing high and keeping the ball high up the pitch which takes some of the pressure off the back so there are a few things which collectively have contributed to the fact that we’re conceding so few goals. I think we’ve matured a little bit and we understand more what the Premier League is about as we are more ruthless, so I think that we are different this year.”

Fulham midfielder Scott Parker on facing Saints: “It will be very difficult. I think Southampton have been very impressive this year, very good side who are good defensively. They also have a very good threat going forward and play a high tempo, so it’s going to be a difficult game for us. But confidence is quite high here, we’re coming off the back of two very good wins so we’re going into the game to try and get something out of it.

Prediction

Under the lights at a packed out St. Mary’s and a potential chance to break back into the top four of the PL, Saints’ fans can’t wait for Saturday to turn up. However, I wouldn’t be so sure that Southampton’s good run will continue against an in-form Fulham side. Yes, Southampton are at home. But they’ve drawn twice at home against West Ham and Sunderland already as both teams stifled them by sitting back and soaking up the pressure. Fulham will also do that, and I fancy a score draw to prevail down on the South Coast.

Atlanta heads into MLS playoffs looking to defend its Cup

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MARIETTA, Ga. (AP) It’s been a strange season for Atlanta United.

They’ve added more two more cups to their collection.

They’ve endured some rather baffling losses.

[ MORE: Monster deal for Mbappe? ]

After all that, the defending MLS Cup champions are heading into the postseason from essentially the same position as last season.

Atlanta, which was runner-up in the Eastern Conference, will host the New England Revolution on Saturday in the opening round of the playoffs, a rematch of their Oct. 6 game to close out the regular season.

“We’ve put ourselves in a pretty decent spot, as strange as the season has maybe been,” midfielder Julian Gressel said Wednesday after a training session. “We’ve already won two trophies, and now we have a chance for a third.”

In mid-August, United broke out the champagne after a 3-2 victory over Mexican powerhouse Club America to capture the Campeones Cup.

A couple of weeks later, they were celebrating again with a 2-1 victory over Minnesota United in the U.S. Open Cup final, guaranteeing a spot in next year’s CONCACAF Champions League.

“I felt like we were always there and pretty much at our best in those games,” Gressel said. “That’s why I’m pretty confident we’ll be at our best when it really matters.”

But there are reasons to be concerned. Atlanta struggled badly in some league games – especially on the road – and rarely looked like the dynamic team that won the MLS Cup in just its second year under former coach Tata Martino.

With Frank De Boer now at the helm, United got off to a sluggish start and spent much of the season juggling lineups and switching up tactics in a desperate bid to find some consistency. Atlanta never put together an unbeaten streak longer than five games – it had three such stretches a year ago – and finished with 58 points, 58 goals and a plus-15 goal differential. All were short of the 69 points, 70 goals and plus-26 differential from the 2018 season.

[ MORE: USMNT player ratings ]

Still, United’s second-place showing in the East behind New York City FC matches last year’s finish, guaranteeing the team at least one home game in the playoffs and another in the conference semifinals should it beat the Revolution.

That’s a crucial edge for a franchise that has essentially broken every MLS attendance record and again averaged more than 52,000 per game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, doubling up every team in the league except Seattle and Cincinnati. In 17 home games, Atlanta lost only twice.

While United closed out the season with a 3-1 victory over New England, the Revolution has been one of the league’s hottest teams over the second half of the season.

Atlanta will be further tested by the possible absence of its best defender, Miles Robinson, who is dealing with a strained left hamstring sustained during a workout with the U.S. national team last week.

If Robinson can’t go, United will have to change up their lineup once again and possibly adopt a more defensive approach to Saturday’s game.

“If I do push up, it’s more so getting back a little faster than I normally would, things like that,” said midfielder Darlington Nagbe, one of those who may be affected if Robinson can’t go. “Just feel the game out and see how it plays out.”

In the regular-season finale, Ezequiel Barco got the start over Pity Martinez, a lineup that de Boer might go with again in the playoffs.

Barco played only 15 league games this season because of injuries and a lengthy stint with Argentina at the FIFA U-20 World Cup, but he provided the sort of spark de Boer was looking for against New England. Martinez, who was the 2018 South American player of the year and Atlanta’s major acquisition during the last offseason, has struggled to find his nice in MLS with just five goals in 32 appearances.

“We have to see,” de Boer said. “The only thing that concerns me is to win the playoffs.”

MLS switched up the playoff format this season. Instead of the top two teams from both the East and the West receiving byes and two-legged rounds to determine the winner of conference semifinals and finals, only the first-place finisher gets the opening round off and every step of the playoffs is a single-game elimination.

There is no room for error.

“If you have an off day, you might be out,” Gressel said. “I feel like it’s a format that favors the underdog a bit more, or gives the underdog a bit more hope.”

More AP soccer: https://apnews.com/apf-Soccer and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

Follow Paul Newberry on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963 His work can be found at https://apnews.com

Zlatan paces MLS jersey sellers, offers fresh quip on Minnesota challenge

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Zlatan Ibrahimovic: He’s like a more charming, less anarchist version of Tom Hardy’s Bane.

The LA Galaxy man was revealed to again have the top-selling jersey in Major League Soccer on Wednesday, days before the club begins its 2019 MLS Cup Playoffs run with a match in Minnesota.

[ MORE: Monster deal for Mbappe? ]

Snow is in the forecast, but Zlatan is not bothered by such weather.

“I’m from Sweden I was born in the snow. When it snows, I’m a viking. When it’s warm, I’m a lion. We adjust for every condition there is.”

Back to the jerseys, the MLS MVP finalists are 1-2-3 in sales. Ibrahimovic is first, followed by Atlanta’s Josef Martinez, and LAFC’s Carlos Vela.

The top sellers amongst Americans are Seattle’s Jordan Morris (7) and Cristian Roldan (12). Chris Wondolowski of San Jose is 13th, while other domestic names on the Top 25 include Sebastian Lletget, Brad Guzan (!?!), Dom Dwyer, Jozy Altidore, and Graham Zusi.

Midweek El Clasico possible in December following political unrest

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Political unrest in Catalonia has both La Liga and the Spanish government looking to move the first El Clasico of the season.

Barcelona and Real Madrid are scheduled to meet at the Camp Nou on Oct. 26, but the jailing of nine Catalan separatists has caused uproar in-and-around Barca.

In fact, Barca as a club has denounced the imprisonment, so it plays more than a peripheral role in the controversy.

[ JPW: What now for Berhalter, USMNT? ] 

Players heading to and returning from international break have faced in challenges in getting to the club.

Instead, Marca says that we may see a midweek match played in Madrid on Wednesday, Dec. 18, with the reverse fixture in March moved from Madrid to Barcelona.

Dec. 18 would give both teams three matches in eight days before La Liga’s winter break. Barca would play Real Sociedad, Real Madrid, and Alaves, while Real would play Valencia and Real Betis in addition to the Clasico. Both difficult runs, but fairly even.

Reports claim Allegri linked with Manchester United, Spurs

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The international break can be a slow time for news, but what to make of multiple reports claiming that Max Allegri is in discussion with a pair of struggling traditional Premier League powers?

Tuttosport claims that Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur have interest in hiring the Italian manager, adding that United has had “intensified” contact with him.

[ MORE: Monster deal for Mbappe? ]

Noise out of Old Trafford continues to back Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, while there is no real buzz that Mauricio Pochettino is on the verge of leaving Spurs.

The 52-year-old Allegri has won Serie A once with AC Milan and five times with Juventus, claiming a Serie C title with Sassuolo in 2007-08.

Is there anything to it? He’d be a great hire for either side. In United’s case, he’d be a marked upgrade on their current boss.