After 12-year absence, Southampton wholeheartedly embrace European return

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SOUTHAMPTON – “We are Southampton… we’ve come from League One.”

That was the chant which rang out around St Mary’s moments after Graziano Pelle had put Saints 1-0 up against Vitesse Arnhem in the first leg of their UEFA Europa League third qualifying round match. Saints’ fans wanted to give everyone a reminder of just how far they’ve come in such a short space of time.

[ MORE: Saints’ 2015-16 PL schedule ]

The Premier League club had waited 12 years to get back in European competition, and St Mary’s was packed to the rafters as they beat Dutch side Vitesse Arnhem 3-0 with goals from Pelle, Dusan Tadic and Shane Long sealing their first European win in 34 years. Southampton’s manager Ronald Koeman has won the UEFA Champions League as a player and has coached in the UCL and Europa League as a manager. He has vast experience of European soccer, but as for his players and his club, it’s all new to them.

“It makes it easier for the players if our fans our coming with those numbers to support the team.” Koeman said. “For everyone in the club it is a new situation and they don’t have that experience. We enjoyed that. We will do everything to reach the group stage of the Europa League.”

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For Southampton, qualifying for the Europa League represents the beginning of a new adventure, one their owners always dreamed of, but just over six years ago you’d scarcely believe they’d be in this position. I remember visiting St Mary’s Stadium in 2009 as the club still searched for an owner to save it. The lights were out in the reception area. One lonely receptionist sat wistfully behind a desk as hopes of another takeover attempt were talked of longingly. That takeover bid would fail in the coming days. Those were dark times in Southampton’s 129-year history.

On Thursday, all of the lights were on at St Mary’s. And then some. The game against Vitesse Arnhem was a sell out as over 32,000 took in the first European game in the city since 2003. Four years after being in English soccer’s third-tier, it was a marquee moment for the South Coast club. As the sun beat down on St Mary’s on a late July evening, two first half goals made sure the mood of the home fans matched the weather.

“It is a very good feeling,” Koeman said. “We had a great atmosphere in the stadium. The fans were looking forward to this game tonight and maybe it was one of the reasons we had a bit of a difficult start in the first 10, 15 minutes. After that we controlled the game well.”

The last time Southampton qualified for Europe it was in the old UEFA Cup format of straight knockout in each round. They were paired with Romanian giants Steaua Bucharest, the toughest team they could have faced, and lost 2-1 on aggregate. After 19 years of waiting to play in Europe, Saints’ fans got two games, and that was it. Speaking to club officials before the match — who have been with the team throughout the double relegation’s and back up to the PL again — they were delighted with the return to Europe after 12 years away and this time, unlike their brief fling in 2003, it felt like Saints belong on this stage. Southampton did qualify for Europe three out of four years throughout the early 1980s, and one man who traveled to Norrkoping and Hamburg during those brief flirtations with the European continent was taxi driver and lifelong Saints fan, Steve Rolfe.

“This is a momentous evening. It sounds cliche but this is League One to the Europa League. It’s the end of a five-year plan we were told about at the start, and we’ve actually done it,” Rolfe said. “The idea now is to move on again. Whether that happens now or some time in the future, we will have to wait and see. I went away to Norrkoping in Sweden and Hamburg in Germany. So technically I haven’t missed one of Saints’ European game for over 30 years! But obviously there hasn’t been too many of them. It’s a chance for the away games to go to places you haven’t been, cities you haven’t been, stadiums you haven’t been and it’s a different style of football. It’s all good.”

Before kick off “one Markus Liebherr” was sung by the home fans to thank the businessman who saved them from extinction in 2009. Looking back six years, Saints had just exited administration, were floundering near the bottom of League One (English soccer’s third-tier) and were trying to piece everything together with new players, a new manager and new owners. After back-to-back promotions in 2011 and 2012, Saints returned to the promise land of the Premier League two years ahead of the initial “five-year plan” set out by their ambitious owners. Sadly, Liebherr passed away in 2010 and hasn’t been around for much of their rise but his daughter Katharina has continued to run the club the way her father would have wanted. But returning to the top flight was only the start. Survival wasn’t good enough. Next stop: Europe.

Southampton v Vitesse - UEFA Europa League: Third Qualifying Round 1st Leg
Southampton v Vitesse – UEFA Europa League: Third Qualifying Round 1st LegJordan Mansfield/Getty Images

“It was amazing, as always. It is nice to grow up as a team and also with the fans. Last year we had a record number of points in the Premier League and we are reaching the Europe League group stages, hopefully,” striker Pelle said after his goal set Saints on their way. “Today the atmosphere was amazing, a full stadium always behind us and it is what we want. We have to always please them with great performances.”

As I drove into the center of Southampton for the game, kids playing on the street kicked around the official UEFA ball. Tales trickled through to me of Vitesse Arnhem fans in the city for two days in advance of the match, as they mixed and drank in pubs with locals. Walking to the stadium, the home fans mingled with away fans and there were plenty of wistful looks from the locals. Emotions were running high and a European night on the south coast was a big deal.

Other cities in England regularly host Europa League and UEFA Champions League matches. For a bustling port city that is used to welcoming visitors from around the world, Sotonians are desperate for their club to have European nights like this regularly down by the River Itchen. A local band had even produced a song called “Southampton in Europa” to fire everyone up, and it had as many techno-beats as you’d expect as they performed outside the stadium before kick off. But what about the grand dreams of bringing the Champions League to the city? Saints flirted with the top four for most of last season to try and make that a reality. Will the Europa League be a steeping stone?

“I’d rather my club was in the Europa League than the Champions League, largely because the size of our club,” Rolfe said. “We wouldn’t get very far in the Champions League, it would be good fun, but we are more suited to the Europa League as things stand.”

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The fact that Europa League qualification is seen as a reward and is embraced by the people of Southampton, the entire playing and coaching staff and everyone else behind the scenes, is a breath of fresh air. For too long teams have treated the Europa League as an afterthought. It’s the poor man’s Champions League that sees you travel to far flung corners of Europe on a Thursday. For the bigger clubs in European soccer, it’s a nuisance. But for ambitious clubs like Saints, it’s a stepping stone to success and a chance to evaluate their progress against like-minded teams in Europe. The Europa League is scoffed at by many, but it’s a big deal in Southampton.

It was a sell out at St Mary’s as European soccer returned, but one Saints fan, Matt Saunders, didn’t have a ticket. When I caught up with him, he was lingering outside the ticket office before kick off to see if any last minute tickets went on sale

“When we were in League One, I don’t think many people believed we’d make it back to the Premier League, let alone Europe,” Saunders said. “It is phenomenal. Absolutely amazing. If you look around, you can see what it means to the city, the atmosphere. It’s wonderful.”

In terms of Premier League clubs in the Europa League in recent seasons, Chelsea were the last team to win it in 2013 after being knocked out of the Champions League and “demoted” to the Europa. Before them the likes of Middlesbrough and Fulham reached the final against all the odds. I’m not saying Saints will get that far, but clubs of a similar stature who have embraced the competition in the past have reaped the benefits.

“We have come a long way from League One but since 2010 we have been on an amazing journey and today was one of the proudest moments of my career leading the team out in Europe,” said Saints’ skipper, Jose Fonte. “This is a competition we take very seriously and this is a chance for us do well, We are an ambitious group. There will probably be new arrivals. This is a great club with great staff, great players and great fans so it is easy to adapt and fit in.”

There is, of course, a negative side many harp on about when it comes to the Europa League. The travelling and extra games impacts clubs like Saints who have smaller squads and their league form subsequently nosedives. Case in point: Swansea City in 2014, Everton last season and Newcastle in 2013. But is that a myth? Will 8-10 extra games — if Saints get through the final two qualifying rounds and reach the group stages — in the fall tip Koeman’s squad to its breaking point?

Southampton v Vitesse - UEFA Europa League: Third Qualifying Round 1st Leg
Southampton v Vitesse – UEFA Europa League: Third Qualifying Round 1st LegJordan Mansfield/Getty Images

It will stretch them to the limits, that’s for sure, but why wouldn’t a team like Southampton go for it and embrace a chance to grow their brand and take their style of play to Germany, Italy, Spain and elsewhere in Europe?

The lingering doubts of PL form faltering and suddenly being sucked into a relegation battle remain, with every club wary of losing the riches being a PL club brings it. It’s a tricky situation for Saints, and other teams in the PL such as West Ham, Swansea and Stoke, who all aspire to compete in Europe regularly but the threat of relegation would see those teams plunge into a downward spiral.

“We are not in a position to think that the Europa League is not important,” Koeman said. “You look to the crowd, you look at the atmosphere tonight. Everybody likes to be part of Europe and we will do the maximum to reach the Europa League group stage.”

Whatever happens in the rest of Southampton’s Europa League campaign this season, a European dream is being realized and the ambitious club is eager to dine at Europe’s top table. For now the Saints are marching on to Europe, and they’re embracing the new challenge one step at a time.

Champions League qualifying: How to watch, start times, odds

UEFA Champions League qualifying
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The 12 clubs remaining in the race for the final UEFA Champions League group stage slots will be pared down to six in the next eight days.

There are American connections to two of the six ties.

Former USMNT midfielder Jesse Marsch manages Austria’s Red Bull Salzburg toward the next round, while Molde right back Henry Wingo came up with the Seattle Sounders.

VIDEO: Premier League highlights ] 

Salzburg are significant favorites to advance over two legs, odds accentuated by Maccabi Tel-Aviv’s seven players absent due to positive COVID-19 tests.

Marsch had previously said he did not want to go to Israel due to COVID-19 concerns, calling it “dangerous,” but has accepted the task at hand.

From Austrian publication Kronen Zeitung:

“The moment UEFA said we were going to play in Tel Aviv, it wasn’t a problem for me. Maccabi has a great team. We are not naive. We understand that we have to fight tomorrow.”

At 3:10 in some sportsbooks, Marsch’s men are the only club favored to win the first leg away. Salzburg is led by Dominik Szoboszlai and Patson Daka, who’ve helped the team thrive despite the sales of several stars including Erling Haaland and Takumi Minamino.

Molde has a much tougher test with Hungarian side Ferencvaros, who knocked off Celtic. That tie could go either way, while Slavia Prague and Olympiakos are respectively noticeable favorites to beat Midtjylland and Omonia Nicosia.

Dynamo Kiev will be expected to outlast Gent over two legs, while it would be a minor upset if PAOK takes down Krasnodar.


How to watch the UEFA Champions League qualifying playoff round

Kickoff: 3 pm ET Tuesday and Wednesday
Stream: CBS All-Access (subscription required)


UEFA Champions League playoff round matches

All 12 legs will kickoff at 3 pm ET between Tuesday and Sept. 30.

Tuesday

Maccabi Tel-Aviv v. Red Bull Salzburg
Slavia Prague v Midtjylland
Krasnodar v PAOK

Wednesday

Gent v Dynamo Kiev
Molde v Ferencvaros
Olympiakos v Omonia

Sept. 29

Ferencvaros v Molde
Dynamo Kiev v Gent
Omonia v Olympiakos

Sept. 30

Midtjylland v Slavia Prague
PAOK v Krasnodar
Red Bull Salzburg v Maccabi Tel-Aviv

Edouard Mendy to Chelsea: What does it mean for Kepa, Blues’ defense?

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Edouard Mendy to Chelsea: What does it mean for Kepa Arrizabalaga and how much does it improve the Chelsea defense?

[ MORE: How to watch PL in the USA ]   

Frank Lampard has confirmed that goalkeeper Edouard Mendy, 28, has arrived from Rennes in a $28 million deal and the Senegalese international will provide ‘competition’ to Kepa.

“Competition is a regular thing. We have brought Mendy in for that competition. It’s in everyone’s hands to get into the squad,” Lampard said. “I think it is the hardest position, because of the individual nature of it. I have to be sympathetic to that point. Last year I changed a few times, it’s a different thought process. We are always striving for the best performance.”

Is anyone buying that?

A couple of high-profile mistakes in Chelsea’s opening two games of the Premier League season has highlighted Kepa’s poor form and Chelsea have moved fast to bring in Mendy.

What does this mean for Kepa Arrizabalaga?

As the ProSoccerTalk lads discuss in the video above, this is probably the end, or at the very least the beginning of the end, for Kepa at Chelsea. Kepa has never really settled at Chelsea and over the last two seasons he hasn’t backed up being the most expensive goalkeeper in the world.

That transfer fee was a little false, as Chelsea were backed into a corner after losing Thibaut Courtois to Real Madrid and paid Kepa’s release clause of $91.1 million to Athletic Bilbao. But they still paid it and even if the fee was half of that, eyebrows would have been raised. Kepa, 25, has failed to command his box, looked nervous with the ball at his feet and shots from outside the box have also given him plenty of problems. Not a great combo for a goalkeeper.

Chelsea may look to loan him out but there’s no doubt that after being dropped for veteran Willy Caballero at the end of last season, the writing was on the wall and Kepa is on borrowed time at Stamford Bridge.

Does Edouard Mendy to Chelsea improve their defense right away?

Not right away, but it will help. His impressive ability to come for crosses and his towering six-foot six-inch frame should provide some stability and confidence from the defenders around him but the way Chelsea play suggests their defensive issues will remain.

Frank Lampard loves to attack and it’s fun to watch. Well, unless you’re a goalkeeper or defender for the Blues. Mendy is one part of the jigsaw and so too is Thiago Silva who will add a calm head and his experience to a youthful defense, and Ben Chilwell at left back will also improve their defensive outlook.

Lampard loves to attack, though, and we must admit that without N’Golo Kante in front of a oft-changed back four, things will be tough. Mendy’s arrival should help settle things down and help Chelsea improve at the back but Lampard needs his center backs to stand tall in the coming weeks and months.

League Cup: How to watch, start times, as Premier League powers enter

League Cup
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Fifteen Premier League teams eye dates in the fourth round when the League Cup returns for another September midweek.

The congested nature of the season will see some PL sides play three matches in as many weeks, though the European qualifying teams are just entering the fray this week.

[ LIVE: Follow League Cup scores ]

That includes Europa League sides Arsenal and Leicester City, who will stage the lone all-PL scrap of the round come Wednesday at the King Power Stadium.

Tuesday was going to see Tottenham Hotspur visit a club sponsored by Spurs striker Harry Kane, but Leyton Orient is in the news after positive COVID-19 tests have threatened to forfeit Spurs into the next round.

VIDEO: Premier League highlights ] 

Manchester United will hope to snap out of its season-opening funk when it begins its tourney Tuesday at Luton Town, while Chelsea hosts Barnsley on Wednesday.

Liverpool is off to Lincoln City on Thursday, kicking off its League Cup at the same time Manchester City welcomes Bournemouth.

Because of the aforementioned congested September in the tournament, the fourth round draw has already been held and those fixtures are at bottom of the page.


League Cup third round draw

All times ET

Tuesday
Leyton Orient v Tottenham Hotspur — Postponed
West Brom v Brentford — 2 pm
Newport County v Watford — 2pm
West Ham United v Hull City — 2:30 pm
Luton Town v Manchester United — 3:15 pm

Wednesday
Preston North End v Brighton — 2 pm
Millwall v Burnley — 2 pm
Fulham v Sheffield Wednesday — 2 pm
Stoke City v Gillingham — 2 pm
Chelsea v Barnsley — 2:45 pm
Leicester City v Arsenal — 2:45 pm
Fleetwood Town v Everton — 2:45 pm
Morecambe v Newcastle United — 2:45 pm

Thursday
Bristol City v Aston Villa — 2 pm
Lincoln City v Liverpool — 2:45 pm
Manchester City v Bournemouth — 2:45 pm


League Cup fourth round draw

Lincoln City/Liverpool v Leicester City/Arsenal
Millwall/Burnley v Manchester City/Bournemouth
West Brom/Brentford v Fulham/Sheffield Wednesday
Fleetwood Town/Everton v West Ham United/Hull City
Bristol City/Aston Villa v Stoke City/Gillingham
Leyton Orient/Tottenham v Chelsea/Barnsley
Newport County/Watford v Morecambe/Newcastle United
Preston North End/Brighton v Luton Town/Manchester United


How to watch League Cup third round streams and start time

Kickoff: Tuesday through Thursday
Online: Select games on ESPN+
Updates: Follow League Cup scores via NBCSports.com

Transfer news: Dembele to Man United; Sancho deal off

Dembele to Manchester United
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In the latest transfer news there is an Ousmane Dembele to Manchester United report, while Jadon Sancho to Manchester United is said to be off. Again.

[ MORE: How to watch PL in the USA ]  

Let’s dive into the latest transfer news from around the Premier League, with a big focus on the Red Devils as they try to add key pieces late in the window.

Ousmane Dembele to Manchester United a good alternative to Sancho?

According to the Daily Record, Ousmane Dembele to Manchester United could happen in the final weeks of the window. Ronald Koeman has said Dembele, 23, is one of many players who are surplus to requirements at Barcelona. Per the report, Man United want a season-long loan deal for Dembele while Barcelona want a loan with an obligation to buy clause. They value Dembele at $117 million.

Look, the best thing Barcelona can do here is loan Dembele out and hope he stays fit and has a fine season at Man United so they want to buy him, or another club will buy him, or he could even return to Barca rejuvenated and able to be a key figure in their attack. Dembele’s last few seasons have been ravaged by injury and it is clear that Antoine Griezmann, Lionel Messi and

For Man United, a loan move is a no-brainer. As they continue to chase Jadon Sancho but are more likely to make their move for the English winger next summer (more on that shortly), having a French international winger for a season to plug the gap is smart. If Dembele is up for the challenge of moving to Manchester United and rebuilding his career, he would provide plenty of competition to Mason Greenwood out wide and is a big upgrade on Jesse Lingard, Daniel James and Juan Mata as their other wide attackers.

Jadon Sancho to Manchester United off

It appears that Jadon Sancho to Manchester United will not happen unless the Red Devils panic massively in the latter stages of the transfer window and up their bid.

Sancho, 20, has been the top target for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer but the England international hasn’t forced through a move from Borussia Dortmund and our colleagues at Sky Sports in the UK state the German club are ‘bemused’ by the way United’s executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward has approached the deal as they’ve failed to get anywhere near Sancho’s valuation.

Speaking to Sport 1, Borussia Dortmund director Sebastian Kehl had the following to say about Sancho’s situation.

“We agreed that we had to show a certain attitude. And €80m are simply not enough for such a player,” Kehl said. “We owed that to the club and the fans. I don’t want to give him up either. Without Jadon this team is worse.”

Kehl went on to admit that Sancho could leave one day but for now he’s happy at Dortmund and vice versa. Is that the end of the summer-long Sancho saga? If it wasn’t over, it pretty much is now.

There’s no doubt that Sancho will end up in the Premier League, and probably at Manchester United, in the future but this deal always seemed like a long-shot considering the current financial situation amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Man United need a new winger to strengthen their already stacked attack and Solskjaer is better off focusing on a short-term solution and then lining up the deal for Sancho to happen over the next few transfer windows.

That said, United’s inability to get deals over the line (Sergio Reguilon, Gareth Bale and Jadon Sancho to name just a few) is starting to wear thing on most of their fans and unless they secure wins galore early in the season, it could be a tough few months for Solskjaer and Co.