Can Southampton really break into the Premier League’s top four?

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A lot can happen in a year, just look at Southampton.

In November last season the Saints were languishing at the bottom of the Premier League table after their promotion from the Championship and had just five points from their opening 11 games.

On November 11 2013, they are third in the PL and have accumulated 22 points. They’re remarkably 17 points better off than they were last season, and there’s no doubt that the management, players and fans at St. Mary’s are dreaming of creating history.

Yes, they haven’t played many of the big teams yet. But they have beaten Liverpool 1-0 at Anfield and outplayed Manchester United at Old Trafford in a deserved 1-1 draw. The Saints have comfortably dispatched Crystal Palace, Fulham, Swansea and Hull at home and look the real deal as they surge forward, keep the ball and play an attractive attacking style of soccer that sees Pochettino lauded in his first full-season in charge after controversially replacing Nigel Adkins last season.

(MORE: Latest Premier League Standings)

What a great decision that looks to be now from Chairman Nicola Cortese. The Saints are marching on.

Following their 4-1 win over Hull City on Saturday, they sealed their best-ever start to a top-flight season. Last week Pochettino picked up the Barclays Premier League Manager of the Month award for October and three of the Argentine’s players were called up to the England squad, as inclusions for Rickie Lambert, Adam Lallana and Jay Rodriguez marked the first time since 1984 that three Saints players were involved for England at the same time.

(MORE: Maurico Pochettino aims for Champions League with Southampton)

The club is going through a golden period. Many fans down on England’s South Coast are rubbing their eyes in disbelief. A top-10 finish this season would have delighted many, now Southampton’s odds to win the title have been slashed to 150-1 after being 3,000-1 in many bookmakers over preseason.

As you can see from the multiple call ups, the benefits for the small club in Southern England succeeding in the PL is also boosting England’s hopes. At all age groups.

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The Saints are flying high, with talented youngsters and plenty of investment… the only way is up.

A conveyor belt of young English talent is rolling out of the Staplewood training ground as first-team regulars James Ward-Prowse and Luke Shaw, both teenagers, will play for the England U-21s this week. Three others will play for England’s U-19 side, and the likes of 22-year-old right back Nathaniel Clyne has been mentioned by England manager Roy Hodgson as “someone we’ve been monitoring closely.”

Three Lions boss Hodgson was on hand to see the Saints tear apart Hull in the first half last weekend, as Lambert smashed home a PK and Saints’ 24-year-old captain, and academy graduate, Lallana scored a wonder goal after a mazy run. The England boss couldn’t stop his wide grin growing as the game wore on. A quick chat with Saints Chairman Cortese was caught by the cameras, needless to say Hodgson likes what he sees from the Saints.

Are we surprised? Not really.

Over the years they’ve always been a breeding ground for top talent, with the likes of Matt Le Tissier, Alan Shearer and Wayne Bridge all developing their skills at Southampton. More recently Theo Walcott, Gareth Bale and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain have pushed Saints’ academy further towards the front of people’s minds and with the latest crops of youngsters now knocking on England’s national team door, more is to come.

(MORE Premier League Supporters – The dramatic rise of Southampton FC and their fans)

You can break down their tactics and how they’re outworking and dominating possession against every team they play this season, but the simple fact is that Southampton have continuity and a clear ideology that’s seem them rise from the depths of League One to the top of the Premier League in under three years. A past PL mainstay who went into a tailspin as financial ruin threatened to kill the club off, the Saints have performed one of the greatest rebuilds in recent English soccer history. Corteses and head of development Les Reed traveled around to the best academies in the world, including Barcelona’s La Masia, to see how they could improve Saints’ already impressive school of excellence. In January their new $45 million training complex will be finished and the club will be equipped to keep grinding out international stars of the future.

All those years when they churned out the likes of Walcott, Bale and Chamberlain but had to sell them while they were in the lower leagues are gone. Now the Saints hold on to their best youngsters, and England borrow them occasionally too. We will have to wait and see how long that will last, but the Saints certainly have strength in-depth as Northern Ireland captain Steven Davis, Uruguayan international Gaston Ramirez, talented England midfielder Jack Cork and Japanese internationals Tadanari Lee and Maya Yoshida can’t get anywhere near the starting lineup.

source: Getty Images
Southampton and England’s Adam Lallana is leading their charge up the PL table as the Saints keep surprising everyone.

Whether they can make a sustained push for the top four, we’ll have to wait and see. But if they’ve got a chance when January rolls around, the Saints will spend big. They’re bankrolled by German construction company Liebherr and they were already the fourth-highest spending PL club during the summer transfer window.

But all of this wonderful youth development, fine PL displays and Champions League talk may stop in a few weeks time as after the international break they face Arsenal at the Emirates — a win for either side could see them top the table — and then Chelsea away the week after. If the Saints can pull off impressive results against those two PL powerhouses, we could even be talking about Pochettino’s youngsters as possible title contenders.

A year ago, who would have thought that?

Spurs’ Son happy South Korea “unscathed” in North Korea qualifier

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As expected, North Korea did not broadcast its World Cup second round qualifier against South Korea this week, making for an old school “wait and see” for fans back home in South Korea.

The match ended 0-0 in front of no fans in Pyongyang, with just police in the stands as Heung-Min Son and South Korea kept their group lead over the North Koreans on goal differential.

[ MORE: Monster deal for Mbappe? ]

Son, the Tottenham Hotspur star, says it was an odd experience. From The Korea Herald:

“The opponents were pretty physical, and we exchanged some terse words,” Son told reporters at Incheon International Airport, west of Seoul. “It might have been their strategy. They played it rough, and they took exception to our own physical play. …. Rather than focusing on the match, we started worrying about trying not to get hurt. It means a lot to have come out unscathed from a match like this.”

The few videos released by journalists show an eerie scene, and South Korea’s status as AFC powers probably played in North Korea’s lack of desire to broadcast a potential home loss. But you have to think that also lived in the home players heads a bit, too.

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.”

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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.