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.”

[ VIDEO: Watch “The Southampton Way” documentary ]

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.

Bruno Lage fired by Wolves

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Wolves have cut ties with head coach Bruno Lage after a little more than a year on the job.

The 46-year-old Lage took over for Nuno Espirito Santo last season and finishes his tenure with a record of 19W-9D-23L across all competitions.

[ MORE: Man City clobbers Man Utd | Player ratings out of 10 ]

Wolves improved their point total from 2020-21 to 2021-22, but the Portuguese boss has overseen a poor start to the 2022-23 Premier League season despite purchases of Goncalo Guedes, Nathan Collins, and Matheus Nunes.

Wolves also bought Stuttgart striker Sasa Kalajdzic, who has since torn his ACL, and the club has failed to manufacture offense at almost every turn.

The club fell 2-0 to West Ham on Saturday and has scored just three goals this season. Wolves sit 18th on the Premier League table, and visit Chelsea on Saturday.

Bruno Lage sacked: What does it mean for Wolves?

Lage firmed up Wolves’ defending last season but his attack has struggled as Raul Jimenez hasn’t reached pre-injury heights and Adama Traore’s been often kept on the bench in favor of a more defensive stance.

Traore is one of the possible beneficiaries of a change, as both Espirito Santo and Lage stripped him of regular starter status but did not sanction a sale for the solid speedster.

Lage played five at the back for much of last season but went to four this season and also tooled around with a three-man back line.

There are some very good pieces for a new manager, who still has Ruben Neves, Pedro Neto, Max Kilman, Collins, and Rayan Ait-Nouri amongst the admired players on the squad.

Wolves statement on firing Bruno Lage

Wolves chairman Jeff Shi said: “Bruno is an excellent coach, a hardworking and dedicated manager, and a warm, wise and honest man.

“He and his staff have been a pleasure to work with throughout their time at Wolves, so it is with much sadness that we have had to make what has been a difficult decision.

“I honestly have no doubts about Bruno’s ability, and I’m sure he will succeed elsewhere, however the team’s form and performances over the last few months mean that we have no choice but to act.

“On behalf of everyone at Wolves, I would like to place on record our gratitude to Bruno and his coaching team for all their efforts during their time with the club, and wish them the very best for the future.”

Manchester City vs Manchester United player ratings out of 10

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We’re entering new territory when it comes to grading anything that has to do with Manchester City, making Man City vs Manchester United player ratings a real hassle.

As bad as Manchester United was in going down five goals en route to a 6-3 loss at the Etihad Stadium, there’s something about the sheer style, grace, and systematic presence of Man City that demands a curve.

[ MORE: What we learned from Man City 6-3 Man Utd ]

David De Gea allowed six goals and it’s a challenge to say he should’ve stopped more than one of them. Antony was United’s star and the fact that he’s done it against a system that challenges attackers makes you want to push him up a notch.

Mostly the Manchester City vs Manchester United player ratings beg you to consider if you’re watching the start of one of the very best seasons to ever be put onto the pitches of the Premier League.


Manchester City vs Manchester United player ratings

These are not going to be kind to the visitors.

Manchester City player ratings

Ederson: 6 — Yes, three goals conceded (one a penalty) but he’s so important to how Pep Guardiola wants to play as evidenced by his 78 touches and 88 percent passing rate.

Kyle Walker (Off 41′): 6 — Had little to do, relatively speaking, before leaving with a left leg injury.

Nathan Ake: 6 — Not a terrible day but you feel better when he’s on the left of the defense rather than central.

Manuel Akanji: 8.5 — Could City have added a better fit? Akanji passes supremely well and is brave when dangers comes his way.

Joao Cancelo: 7.5 — Seven recoveries in a different and perhaps just as important role than his usual marauding self.

Bernardo Silva: 8 — How old that another Silva has replaced David as City’s somehow underappreciated but clearly world class star?

Ilkay Gundogan (Off 75′): 7 — Sunday’s captain didn’t have to do too much.

Kevin De Bruyne (Off 75′): 8 — Two assists and three shots.

Jack Grealish (Off 75′): 8 — Oh boy was he a pest from moment No. 1. Terrific day for the former Villa star.

Erling Haaland: 10 — What looked like a near-perfect fit is turning out to be a perfect fit. What was anyone doubting, anyway: That a gigantic beast of a man didn’t know how to pass?

Phil Foden (Off 75′): 10 — A hat trick on six shots, four of which were on target. Twenty-one of 22 passes completed over 75 minutes. You could argue that Foden has the chance to be Pep Guardiola’s great development if the Catalan wizard didn’t help produce Messi.

Phil Foden
fotmob.com

Subs

Sergio Gomez (On 41′): 7 — An assist but a bit too rash with the ball. Still, reassuring to see a new player make such a difference.

Julian Alvarez (Off 75′): 6.5 — Could’ve (should’ve?) scored.

Cole Palmer (On 75′): 6 — 20-year-old connected all six of his passes and created a good look to goal, but was out there for two conceded.

Riyad Mahrez (On 75′): — 6

Aymeric Laporte (On 75′): 5.5


Manchester United player ratings

David De Gea: 4 — His expected goals on target was under three, so there’s that, but it’s hard to fault the Spanish keeper for not depriving more than one of City’s six goals. Just two saves, however.

Tyrell Malacia (Off 46′): 4.5 — A halftime sacrifice on a yellow card, was far from the biggest culprit but not great.

Raphael Varane (Off 41′): 5 — Blocked a shot and connected on all of his passes. The extent of his injury could badly set United’s plans back.

Lisandro Martinez: 3.5 — A dreadful day for the physical center back

Diogo Dalot: 3 — Too many crosses found their way to the other side of the pitch. He was a part of both ends of that.

Scott McTominay (Off 59′): 5 — A busy, busy boy. That was likely due to Erik ten Hag’s choice to deploy Christian Eriksen next to him against the best possession team in the world. A goal line clearance, a blocked shot, an interception, and four tackles.

Christian Eriksen: 4 — Created chances and picked up an assist, but really wasn’t the right fit for what Ten Hag was attempting to do at the Etihad.

Antony: 7.5 — Quite good, scoring a beauty and showing fire over 90 minutes despite the lopsided score line.

Antony
fotmob.com

Bruno Fernandes: 5.5 — The system was a big part of his struggles, and it will be as long as a Casemiro or Fred isn’t out there; For Bruno to be near his best, he needs the freedom that will open up holes in the midfield.

Jadon Sancho (Off 70′): 5 — Seven recoveries on just 37 touches. System didn’t play to his strengths.

Marcus Rashford (Off 59′): 5 — Twelve touches in almost an hour as the center forward in a 4-2-3-1. Can’t really put that on him, can you?

Subs

Victor Lindelof (On 41′): 45 — Actually performed extremely well with the ball. Compared to peers’ days… hard to gripe with the Swede.

Luke Shaw (On 46′): 4.5 — Suffice it to say he didn’t fix what ailed United from the first half.

Anthony Martial (On 59′): 7.5 — A difference-making sub (unfortunately the difference was a three-goal loss instead of a five-goal loss).

Casemiro (On 59′): 6 — If Erik ten Hag could back and start one player, we bet it would be Casemiro. His insertion wasn’t going to save the day but his start could’ve given them a platform to play forward with more confidence.

Fred (On 70′): 6.5 — Tidy and in-control, likely a good-enough showing to merit a longer look.

Leeds vs Aston Villa live! Score, how to watch, stream link, TV, lineups

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Leeds vs Aston Villa: Two sides in desperate need of a victory to stop their ongoing slides will meet at Elland Road on Sunday (watch live, 11:30 am ET on USA Network and online via NBCSports.com). 

STREAM LIVE LEEDS vs ASTON VILLA

Leeds came flying out of the gates to begin Jesse Marsch’s first full season in charge as they went 2W-1D-0L in their first three games. Since then, two defeats and a draw.

Seven games into their own season, and Aston Villa appear on the verge of stabilizing the ship after an incredibly rocky start which included four defeats from their first five games.

Here’s everything you need to know ahead of Leeds vs Aston Villa

[ MORE: How to watch Premier League in USA ]


How to watch Leeds vs Aston Villa live, stream link and start time

Kick off: 11:30 am ET, Sunday
TV channel: USA Network
Online: Stream via NBCSports.com


Key storylines & star players

As expected under Marsch, Leeds have taken a high-volume approach to their tactics — lots of pressing and challenges, lots of counter-attacking and lots of scoring chances created. Their 1.57 expected goals (per 90 minutes) ranks 7th in the Premier League. Leeds haven’t played a game (in any competition) since Sept. 3, one day shy of a month come Sunday, due to the death of Queen Elizabeth II and the ensuing fixture postponements. Leading goal-scorer Rodrigo remains out with a shoulder injury, but the Spaniard could be back in the next week or two.

Goal-scoring has been a major issue thus far for Aston Villa, who have scored multiple goals in a game just once this season. Six different players have scored a goal, but no one has scored two. Unsurprisingly, Steven Gerrard’s side sits 19th in the PL for xG (0.76 per 90).


Leeds team news, injuries, lineup options

OUT:  Stuart Dallas (thigh), Adam Forshaw (ankle)

Aston Villa team news, injuries, lineup options

OUT: Diego Carlos (achilles), Lucas Digne (ankle), Boubacar Kamara (knee), Matty Cash (hamstring)

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Demolition derby: Man City slices up United with Haaland, Foden hat tricks

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Erling Haaland and Phil Foden both recorded hat tricks as Manchester City built a five-goal lead before settling for a 6-3 blowout derby win over Manchester United on Sunday at the Etihad Stadium.

Haaland finished with three goals and two assists, while Kevin De Bruyne set up two of the big Norwegian’s goals. Haaland now has 14 goals through eight Premier League games, 18 off the league record for a 38-game season set by Mohamed Salah in 2017-18.

WATCH MAN CITY vs MAN UNITED FULL MATCH REPLAY STREAM

Antony had the game at 4-1 after 56 minutes, but it was 6-1 before Anthony Martial chipped in a pair of late goals off the bench.

Unbeaten champions Man City move a point back of Arsenal, eight clear of sixth-place United. Man Utd has played one fewer match.

[ MORE: How to watch Premier League in USA ]


What we learned from Manchester City vs Manchester United

Erling Haaland’s goal record chase is real: Thirteen goals through eight games? Really?!? Erling Haaland is on fire, and every single Premier League defense should be terrified. We spent an entire season wondering what last season’s Man City would look like with a finisher at center forward and now we’ve found out that it is flat out ridiculous.

Erik ten Hag handcuffs his team: Look, hindsight is always going to be 20:20. We get that, but expecting to go toe-to-toe with City away by deploying Christian Eriksen and Scott McTominay at the heart of your midfield while leaving Fred and Casemiro on the bench was almost absurd. Eriksen’s defensive skills weren’t up for the task and left McTominay running around like a maniac. The ball barely found its way to the front four, which was United’s only hope of hanging with the hosts. Antony’s incredible goal is a cruel hint of what might’ve been for ETH’s young team.

Phil Foden, Kevin De Bruyne unfair: That’s the lesson. Unfair.

Can 2022-23 Manchester City supplant 2008-09 Barcelona as Pep’s masterpiece? It’s difficult to Imagine a season better than Barcelona’s league and Champions League double. Barcelona was stunned on Opening Day but did not lose again until February 21. It did not lose a meaningful European match nor trail after a leg of the knockout rounds. Of its five league losses, four came after building a 13-point table lead in mid-February. Even throwing in 105-goal, plus-70 goal differential La Liga figures somehow doesn’t change the thought that this City could better most of those marks. City is currently on pace for 133 goals and a nearly triple-digit goal diffrential, though it’s yet to have played Liverpool, Spurs, Chelsea, or Arsenal. It’s also in second place (laughing emoji).


Phil Foden reaction

“It’s a dream come true, playing a derby as a City fan as well. Erling and I have built a connection, just finding each other.”

Erling Haaland reaction

“Not bad,” Haaland said on USA Network. “We scored six goals. What can you say? It’s amazing. To win at home and score six goals here, it’s nice.

“You can feel it all the time. You see the passes we give each other. We always want to go forward, to attack. In the end it’s amazing, there’s nothing more to say.”
Erling Haaland
fotmob.com

Tactical focus

Rodri’s absence for Man City threatened an opening for United but the midfield duo of Scott McTominay and Christian Eriksen were left without a rudder by Erik ten Hag (See what we learned, above). That left City a lot of freedom if it stayed calm with the ball, which it characteristically did, and Raphael Varane’s exit meant the visitors were going to be in a whole lot of trouble.


Stars of the show

Erling Haaland

Phil Foden

Manuel Akanji

Kevin De Bruyne

Bernardo Silva

Anthony Martial: Ask Erik ten Hag how happy he is that second-half sub Martial didn’t go through the motions and instead delivered a pair of goals to make the score line a little more palatable.

Antony: The two ‘Ants’ carried well more than their weight despite their team’s struggles.

Antony
fotmob.com

What’s next?

Man City hosts Copenhagen on Wednesday in the Champions League before Southampton visits on Saturday.

Man United has a long trip to Cyprus for a scrap with Omonia in the Europa League on Thursday, then visits Everton on Sunday.


Phil Foden goal video: City strikes first with splendid team goal

Erling Haaland goal video: Rinse, repeat.

Phil Foden goal video: Haaland can assist, too


How to watch Manchester City vs Manchester United live, stream link and start time

Kick off: 9 am ET, Sunday
Online: Stream via Peacock Premium


Key storylines & star players

Despite a pair of disappointing draws (Newcastle and Aston Villa), it’s been an unbeaten start to the 2022-23 season for Man City, who still lead the PL in possession (66.4 percent per game) while also becoming an unstoppable offensive force from last season (14 goals in their first seven games) to this season (23). That’s not to say it’s been easy as Manchester City go through a tactical shift of their own to better appeal to the big Norwegian’s poaching abilities. Though they have been forced to grind out results a few times already this season, it’s highlighted a newfound spontaneity for a side that’s been as regimented as any in the world. Will that freedom be what ultimately lands Pep Guardiola his first Champions League trophy since 2011, and perhaps a third straight PL title (and a fifth in six years) to boot?

As for Manchester United, the Ten Hag era has been a wild roller-coaster ride already, short as it’s been. The back-to-back defeats were one thing, but the abject performances were the real cause for discontent. While picking up the four straight victories, the Dutchman has also settled on a midfield setup with Scott McTominay and Christian Eriksen operating in (effectively) a double pivot with Bruno Fernandes the most advanced of the three. It has brought defensive stability, of course, but more importantly the change has revealed a deadly counter-attacking side. Each of Jadon Sancho, Marcus Rashford and Fernandes have scored twice during the winning run, with new boy Antony also getting in on the fun on his debut. With space in behind (and the proper service from deep), Ten Hag might just have his first winning formula (albeit quite unlike him).


Manchester City team news, injuries, lineup options

OUT: Kalvin Phillips (shoulder), John Stones (hamstring), Benjamin Mendy (suspension – MORE)

Manchester United team news, injuries, lineup options

OUT: Harry Maguire (hamstring), Marcus Rashford (thigh), Brandon Williams (undisclosed), Mason Greenwood (suspension – MORE), Donny van de Beek (knock), Martin Dubravka (knock)

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