Premier League Playback: Southampton heading to the Champions League?

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CAN TINY SOUTHAMPTON REACH EUROPE’S ELITE?

The last time Southampton won at Old Trafford in the league was January 1988. In their last 19 visits to Manchester United they have lost 16 and drawn three. On Sunday then went into the “Theatre of Dreams” and beat Louis van Gaal’s men — who were previously undefeated in 10 — 1-0 with a composed, mature display as they jumped ahead of the Red Devils into third place. Saints fans across the globe are now dreaming of a top four finish and, as NBC’s very own Roger Bennett documented in “The Southampton Way” which you can watch in full above, after a long, meticulous journey to get to this point, they are closing in on the promised land.

[ RELATED: Saints stun United at Old Trafford ]

Southampton’s fans, full or irony, chanted “the Saints are staying up!” in the latter stages of their win at United. The club which has so often battled against relegation during its time in the Premier League is now among the upper echelons and is making a realistic challenge for the top four and UEFA Champions League qualification. So, can they do it?

“We know we have a strong team and that was important in the end of December. We got a point against Chelsea and the three points against Arsenal. That makes belief in the players,” Southampton’s manager Ronald Koeman said. “It is what you need if you are not a big club: belief in the players, not afraid of the name or the stadium. We learned that. I am not surprised we won today. We have organisation. We have 11 clean sheets in 21 games. If we keep the spirit and the organization, we can keep in front in the table.”

Dutch manager Koeman — who arrived at Southampton in the summer after a mass exodus of the clubs’ best players but recruited superbly to build a vibrant, solid unit who are on course to shock the PL — chucked Saints’ usual plan of slick, attacking, possession-based soccer out of the window against United as his team put in the perfect away display. They held United at bay expertly, then launched counter attacks with Graziano Pelle holding the ball up as Dusan Tadic’s goal was a fine example of their gameplan working perfectly.

Being able to change their style in the absence of Sadio Mane (who is at the African Cup of Nations with Senegal) and purely because they believed that is how they could get a result at United reinforces Koeman’s tactical brilliance and the intelligence of his players to implement his plan. Being able to adapt the way they play to get results is what all the best teams do. Saints have a clear philosophy of playing attractive, attacking soccer, but it’s okay to steer away from that from time to time to get results. Replicating this performance will be key if they can reach the top four.

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Saints’ back four and two holding midfielders strangled United’s offense superbly.

What is key to the organization Koeman spoke of is Southampton’s two holding midfielders and the inspirational play of captain Jose Fonte at the heart of their defense. Fonte, 31, was named the Man of the Match at Old Trafford in the same week he marked five years at Saints after he joined them in League One to help the club embark on its meteoric rise to the Premier League. Fonte and Morgan Schneiderlin are the only two players left who have been regulars from the start of this incredible journey to the top four of English soccer.

[ RELATED: Why is Southampton’s exodus happening? ]

Schneiderlin and his fellow central midfielder Victor Wanyama were superb on Sunday as they sat in front of Saints’ back four to frustrate United as the Red Devils failed to register a single shot on target. That is just the second time since Opta began collecting records that United have failed to register a shot on target in a home match, and they only managed two away at Southampton in December when Saints outplayed them but somehow lost 2-1.

If you look at the image above, the incredible organization and discipline from Southampton’s two central midfielders and defenders was seen multiple times. The defended as a block of four to cancel out the attacking talents of Wayne Rooney, Angel Di Maria and RVP in the central areas who had to keep dropping deep to get the ball. In the end, United had to chuck on Marouane Fellaini and resort to lumping long balls into the box. Saints dealt with that easily as they have now conceded just 15 goals, the best defensive record in the Premier League and they have allowed the fewest shots on their goal so far this season in the PL.

[ RELATED: Watch full match replays ]

Saints have four huge tests left in their 17 remaining games. They host Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur at St Mary’s, plus face trips away to the two teams currently above them, Chelsea and Manchester City. If they can somehow split those matches and pick up six to eight points from them, then it’s safe to say they will be well on their way to capturing a top four berth. That is all dependent on them blowing through the rest of the PL field as they have done so far this season, with a shock defeat away at Burnley during the height of their slump in December the only blot on their copybook.

 [ RELATED: Latest Premier League standings ]

At the start of the 2014-15 season Southampton’s odds with the bookies to get relegated were 9/2 and shorter. Now, just six months later, the Saints are 500/1 to go down and the odds to finish in the top four have been slashed. What a transformation from Koeman, his new players and the entire backroom staff at Southampton. Can they see it through and become the story of the season (if they aren’t already) in the PL?

SANCHEZ THE BEST?

Premier League Schedule – Week 21

Result Recap & Highlights
Arsenal 3-0 Stoke Recap and watch here
Burnley 2-1 QPR Recap and watch here
Chelsea 2-0 Newcastle Recap and watch here
Crystal Palace 2-1 Spurs Recap and watch here
Everton 1-1 Man City Recap and watch here
Leicester 1-0 Aston Villa Recap and watch here
Man United 0-1 Saints Recap and watch here
Sunderland 0-1 Liverpool Recap and watch here
Swansea 1-1 West Ham Recap and watch here
West Brom 1-0 Hull City Recap and watch here

Without Alexis Sanchez, Arsenal would barely be hovering in midtable this season.

The 26-year-old Chilean forward has now scored 12 goals and assisted seven more following his two-goal salvo against Stoke City on Sunday. Sanchez has been involved in more goals than any other PL player this season and he is surely the signing of the summer transfer window.

[ RELATED: Sanchez’s star rising ]

At $45 million, he is a bargain. And if he keeps up this form, like Robin van Persie and Cesc Fabregas in the past, it will be hard for Arsene Wenger to keep hold of the former Barcelona star. Quite why the Catalan club agreed to let him go is puzzling, but Arsenal’s fans are pleased they did as the Gunners sit just one point off the top four despite all of their struggles this season.

[ RELATED: Three things we learned ]

Against Stoke, Sanchez was the catalyst as he whipped in a pinpoint cross for Laurent Koscielny to head home the first, then had Thierry Henry and Robert Pires (spectators in an executive box) on their feet and applauding in appreciation as he jinxed inside and finished at the near post to make it 2-0 after 33 minutes. Within five minutes of the restart he scored his second and Arsenal’s third, while also laying plenty of other opportunities on a plate for his teammates.

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights ]

Speaking of his teammates at Arsenal, they are amazed by Sanchez’s hunger and desire in every single match. Wenger will be hoping Sanchez’s fine form rubs off on, and inspires, Arsenal’s other stars.

“Alexis absolutely loves it. He is like a Duracell battery – he just does not give in,” Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain said. “Whether it is a cup competition or times when you think maybe it could be a chance for him to come out and rest, he is the first one to say he wants to play and he always wants to be a part of it. I am sure if the boss wants to rest him, he would respect that as well, but his attitude and the way he approaches training, you wouldn’t think he was tired and the way he is playing, you wouldn’t take him out of the side either. Hopefully, he can keep his fitness and keep going, but the athlete that I see every day, I can’t see him falling short anytime soon.”

RELEGATION PICTURE PUZZLING

Just five points separate Leicester City in 20th and Everton in 12th, as the relegation picture has become a nine-team battle in the PL. Wins for struggling Burnley, Crystal Palace, Leicester and West Bromwich Albion at the weekend sucked plenty of teams into the mix as almost have the league is now fighting for their lives against the dreaded drop.

[ RELATED: Analyzing the relegation battle ]

Here’s a look at the bottom half of the table in the PL. If  you had to pick three teams, right now, to get relegated to the second-tier of English soccer, who would you go for? What an epic battle this will be.

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BONY PERFECT FIT FOR CITY

Wilfried Bony is edging towards a move to Manchester City, as a fee of $42 million has been agreed for the Swansea City striker. Bony, 26, is currently on international duty at the African Cup of Nations with the Ivory Coast, but when he returns to the Premier League in the coming weeks he will likely be part of a title challenge with the Citizens.

[ RELATED: Is Bony a good fit for City? ]

After scoring nine goals in 20 PL games this season, plus being the top PL scorer in 2014 with 20 goals, Bony has proved he can do it in England’s top-flight. At Swansea he is often feeding off scraps but at City he will get numerous chances to score. The thing which stands out about Bony, apart from his superb hold up play and terrific learp in the air, is his ability to stay calm when presented with a chance to score.

Swansea will double their money on the man they signed from Vitesse Arnhem at the start of the 2013-14 season. $42 million will balance all their books and hand Garry Monk a considerable warchest to try and consolidate their position as a top 10 team in the PL. Bony will fit right in at the Etihad Stadium, a City will finally add some depth to their front line with Edin Dzeko, Stevan Jovetic and, most importantly, Sergio Aguero back fit and ready to kick on towards a second-straight title.

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Tadic finally found his shirt, but whipped it off within minutes to prove a point.

NO SHIRT, NO PROBLEM

No shirt. No shin guards. No problems. Dusan Tadic, Saints’ match-winner against Manchester United, was ready to jump off the bench in the 63rd minute to replace Eljero Elia. Expect, he wasn’t. Not even close. As the camera panned to Southampton’s bench, Tadic stood there with no jersey and no shin guards, as puzzled looks adorned the faces of Saints’ staff.

[ RELATED: Van Gaal – the best team lost ]

Had Tadic, who has mostly been a starter this season, really forgotten to bring his jersey with him from the locker room? Turns out the Serbian international did, but claims his shirt went missing as somebody, somewhere, may have the wingers shirt. Anyway, he saw the lighter side of the situation as after scoring the winner just minutes after jumping off the bench, Tadic ripped off his shirt and did his best Cristiano Ronaldo impression. With abs like that, why not? He did get a yellow for that celebration, which his manager wasn’t happy about, but Tadic will claim it was worth it.

USMNT UPDATE

As you can see in the video above, the U.S. national team’s only outfield player in action in the Premier League this weekend had a rough result as Geoff Cameron and Stoke City were undone by Sanchez and according to Geoff the Potters simply had “a bad day at the office.” Stoke sit in 11th and are seven points above the relegation zone.

[ RELATED: Cameron’s latest blog for PST ]

Elsewhere, Brad Guzan’s Aston Villa lost 1-0 at Midlands rivals Leicester, as the Villains have scored just 12 goals in 21 PL games this season. Manager Paul Lambert is under plenty of pressure, but Guzan believes his manager should not be getting the blame. Jozy Altidore was not on the bench once again for Sunderland, as it seems like the USMNT forward could be heading back to Major League Soccer with Toronto FC the front-runners. However a swap deal with TFC involving Jermain Defoe is believed to be far from being completed as Altidore is stuck in a holding pattern. Tim Howard is still out injured, but his Everton side did hold title-chasing Manchester City to a 1-1 draw at Goodison Park. 

Premier League Playback comes out every Monday as PST’s Editor and Lead Writer takes an alternative look at all the action from the weekend. Read the full archive, here