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Premier League 2016-17 season preview: Southampton

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Southampton is in the middle of yet another rebuild.

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Manager Ronald Koeman left for Everton over the summer and key players Victor Wanyama, Sadio Mane and Graziano Pelle all departed as Frenchman Claude Puel has arrived to take charge at St Mary’s. It gets to a point where you ask yourself: can Southampton really keep flourishing despite constantly having to rebound from losing players and managers season after season?

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After recording higher finishes in seven-straight seasons since they were saved by the Liebherr family as third-tier team in 2008, Saints have been on a dramatic journey which culminated in them finishing sixth in the Premier League last season (their best-ever PL campaign) and qualifying for the group stages of the Europa League.

With a rich history of bringing through talented players from their academy (Gareth Bale, Luke Shaw, Matt Le Tissier to name a few) Puel’s task will be to mastermind another top 10 finish for Saints in the PL and also have a good go at the Europa League and the domestic cup competitions. For many, this season is a step too far in terms of player sales at Saints. It’s up to the players and manager they have to prove everyone wrong, once again, but judging on their preseason performances there is still plenty of work to be done.

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Saints will stun everyone, once again, a make a serious challenge for the top four: They came very close to doing this last season and only finished three points off the top four. If Puel’s side hit the ground running and find form early in the campaign, who knows? Not much has to change. The only starters they really lost were Wanyama and Mane but only the latter feels like a monumental blow. A team full of internationals, Saints are up for the challenge of kicking on again.

Most likely they will battle relegation and Puel will be gone by January because… That’s just the vibe coming out of St Mary’s from afar. You get the sense that Puel is taking a while to adapt to managing in England after 20 years coaching in France. With no new marquee players to replace those who left, if the Frenchman doesn’t get off to a good start he’ll be under pressure.


Best Possible XI

—– Forster —–

Cedric — Fonte — Van Dijk — Bertrand —

—– Romeu —– Clasie —–

—- Redmond —- Davis —- Tadic —-

—– Long —–


Transfers in: Nathan Redmond ($15 million, Norwich City), Pierre-Emile Hjolberg ($13 million, Bayern Munich), Alex McCarthy (Undisclosed, Crystal Palace), Jeremy Pied (Free)

Transfers out: Sadio Mane ($45 million, Liverpool), Victor Wanyama ($14 million, Tottenham Hotspur), Graziano Pelle ($15 million, Shandong Lenung), Gaston Ramirez (Free, Middlesbrough), Juanmi ($7 million, Real Sociedad), Kelvin Davis (Retired), Will Brit (Released), Jason McCarthy (Loan, Walsall), Paulo Gazzaniga (Loan, Rayo Vallecano)

Last season: The 2015-16 season was Saints’ best-ever finish and points tally in the Premier League. Under Koeman they finished sixth, surging up the standings in the final weeks of the season. Despite a wobble around the festive season which saw talk of a relegation battle emanate from management, Saints turned things around to become the form team in the final few months of the season. Only Leicester won more points than Southampton in 2016. Their club slogan rang true: We March On.

Star player: Virgil Van Dijk – The imposing Dutch center back has it all in his locker. A stunning debut season in the PL saw VVD rewarded with a new contract at St Mary’s and he’s their most important player. So cool and calm on the ball, he could be the next big name to move on. Alongside Jose Fonte he will hold this Saints team together.

OLDENZAAL, NETHERLANDS - JULY 27: Virgil van Dijk of Southampton runs with the ball during the friendly match between Twente Enschede and FC Southampton at Q20 Stadium on July 27, 2016 in Oldenzaal, Netherlands. (Photo by Christof Koepsel/Getty Images)
(Photo by Christof Koepsel/Getty Images)

Coach’s Corner: Puel is a likable, experienced coach who has an excellent track record working with youngsters. He helped nurture Thierry Henry and David Trezeguet at Monaco, Eden Hazard at Lille and Alexandre Lacazette at Lyon. He played under Arsene Wenger at Monaco and won a Ligue 1 title in his first season as a manager. He has experience of managing in the UEFA Champions League and that is ultimately where he wants to take Saints. He’ll have a tough task to do that, or to better the sixth place finish from last season. Time will tell but Puel is under pressure from the get-go at a club which has ambitious plans.

Speaking to ProSoccerTalk during preseason (Saints are unbeaten through five games) Puel spoke about the players adapting to the new diamond formation he wants to implement in midfield.

“They begin to take themselves to this formation and they correct it between them,” Puel said. “It is important to give a detailed plan for the players and after that it is the player on the pitch that gives the good solution and life for this way of playing.”

GRONINGEN, NETHERLANDS - JULY 30: The team of Southampton poses prior to the friendly match between FC Groningen an FC Southampton at Euroborg Stadium on July 30, 2016 in Groningen, Netherlands. (Photo by Christof Koepsel/Getty Images)
(Photo by Christof Koepsel/Getty Images)

PST predicts: It could be a season of struggle for Saints. Having to balance Thursday night games in the Europa League is never easy and couple that with a new manager who is still learning the English game, regression is likely for Southampton. That said, talk of a relegation battle is too extreme and they will likely finish in midtable and have a good run in Europe and the domestic cups. Not a disaster season but we may see signs that their policy to cash in on star players has gone one step too far.

Guardiola: Man City should get apology

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Pep Guardiola believes Manchester City should get an apology after they won their appeal against a two-year UEFA ban.

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Manchester City saw their ban overturned on Monday as their appeal to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) was successful. UEFA had claimed that Man City’s hierarchy broke Financial Fair Play (FFP) rules between 2012-16 but CAS ruled that the punishment dished out by European soccer’s governing body was too severe and a $34 million fine was reduced to $11.3 million.

That means Guardiola’s men can play in the Champions League next season and speaking ahead of their clash against Bournemouth on Wednesday (start time, 1pm ET for FREE via Peacock), Guardiola came out all guns blazing.

“We were damaged. Our prestige and reputation was damaged,” Guardiola said.

He was then asked about comments from Tottenham boss Jose Mourinho who called the whole situation ‘disgraceful’ when it came to the way Man City were treated.

“We should be apologized [to],” Mourinho said. “If we did something wrong, we will accept absolutely the decisions. We have the right to defend ourselves when we believe what we have done is right. Today is a good day for football. If we broke the rules we would have been banned. The club believed what they have done is right and three judges have said we have done it properly. The people who said we were cheating and lying, presumption of innocence was not there.”

Guardiola is not holding back here. From the get-go both he, the club and their legal representatives have vowed to clear their name and they’ve done it.

This is a huge victory for Manchester City on multiple levels.Not least because they faced potentially losing big name players and maybe even Guardiola had they been banned from the Champions League for two seasons, not to mention a new financial reality as their spending would have been limited due to the loss of income from Champions League action.

Man City are one of the favorites to win the Champions League this season and when it restarts in August, Guardiola and his players will be fired up to prove all those who believed they were guilty, were wrong.

Real Madrid on brink of La Liga title; record ninth-straight win

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MADRID (AP) Real Madrid is on the verge of reclaiming the Spanish league title, after its ninth straight win following the pandemic break.

Madrid defeated Granada 2-1 on Monday to move within two points of winning the La Liga title.

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Ferland Mendy and Karim Benzema scored first-half goals to keep Madrid four points ahead of second-placed Barcelona with two rounds to go.

Madrid can clinch its first title since 2017 on Thursday with a win at Villarreal, or if Barcelona loses points when it hosts Osasuna. Two draws in the final two rounds will also be enough to secure Madrid a record 34th league trophy.

“We are a step closer but we can’t relax, we haven’t won anything yet,” Madrid captain Sergio Ramos said. “There are still points to be won. We depend on ourselves and we have a game at home coming up, hopefully we can win it and celebrate the league title.”

Madrid was in control early in Granada and Mendy’s first goal since joining the Spanish club this season came from a beautiful angled shot into the top corner after getting past a defender inside the area in the 10th minute.

Benzema added to the lead six minutes later by scoring his 19th league goal with a right-footed strike into the far corner.

Granada, which was 10th in the standings, got on the board with a goal by Darwin Machis in the 50th and pressured to the end.

The hosts came closest to the equalizer with about five minutes left, when Madrid goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois had to make a difficult save and Ramos cleared a shot at the goal line.

Madrid had not conceded a goal in its last five league matches.

Sevilla secured the final Champions League spot after Villarreal lost to Real Sociedad 2-1.

The loss left Villarreal nine points behind fourth-placed Sevilla with two rounds to go. Sevilla beat Mallorca 2-0 on Sunday for its fourth straight win.

Real Madrid, Barcelona and Atletico Madrid have the other berths in the Champions League.

Sevilla last featured in the Champions League in 2018 when it was eliminated by Bayern Munich in the quarterfinals. It played in the Europa League in 2018-19 and this season, where it will face Roma in the round of 16.

Villarreal needed a win to keep alive its hopes of making it to the Champions League. It has won six of its nine matches following the pandemic break, but the home setback against Sociedad ended its chances of qualifying. It remains in good position to grab a Europa League spot, though, as it kept fifth place.

Sociedad also stayed in contention for the Europa League with its third win since the break, moving to seventh place. Willian Jose scored in the 61st minute and Diego Llorente in the 75th, while the hosts pulled closer through Santi Cazorla in the 85th.

Getafe stayed in sixth place after drawing at relegation-threatened Alaves 0-0.

A late goal disallowed by video review kept Getafe from earning its second win since the league resumed after the pandemic stoppage.

Alaves has also won only once since the break and is winless in seven straight league matches. It is four points above the relegation zone.

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

Tales Azzoni on Twitter: http://twitter.com/tazzoni

Man United: ‘We will put it right’ and not feeling pressure in top 4 race

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Manchester United insist they will put their draw against Southampton right and the reaction from Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and his players was clear that they aren’t feeling the pressure of the top four race.

Leading 2-1 in the 96th minute at home against Southampton, they conceded a late equalizer from a corner and Solskjaer looked understandably frustrated with two points dropped.

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Within a few seconds they went from moving up to third with three games to now sitting in fifth, behind both Leicester City and Chelsea in the top four race.

Speaking to reporters via Zoom after the game, Solskjaer was asked if he believes in the mentality of his players to put things right.

“I have to say the mentality of the boys has been absolutely brilliant. We’ve had a few setbacks and this is another challenge for us. I’m very confident in the mentality of them,” Solskjaer said. “Very disappointed, of course, but you have to take the disappointments as well as the positives when you win games. Disappointment because one of the last kicks of the ball you concede a goal and you lose two points, that’s just part of football. We’ve learned a hard lesson today, hopefully. We will make it right and put it right. The boys, I trust them in that respect.”

[ MORE: Maguire reacts to draw ]

Solskjaer was then asked if the pressure of the situation, watching Chelsea and Leicester both get hammered at the weekend and giving them the chance to jump up to third, played on the mind of his players.

“Absolutely not,” was Solskjaer’s reaction. “I don’t think any of our players have been thinking what have Chelsea done this weekend. Not at all. It is just the way the games go. We all play against the same teams and we all have 38 games to go through. It will even itself out during a long season and you will deserve the position you get in the end.”

That position for Manchester United will still probably be in the top four but they have made it harder for themselves now.

From the start they looked sluggish against Saints, with Paul Pogba giving the ball away on the first goal, then they sat back and looked tired in the second half.

Although Solskjaer said tiredness wasn’t an issue, it looked like midtable Southampton were chasing third place and not Manchester United. Maybe a busy few weeks caught up with United but they now have an FA Cup semifinal and huge games against Crystal Palace, West Ham and Leicester City to finish the season.

Going forward they looked slick and they should have just about enough in the tank to finish in the top four. However, this will be tight and could go to the final game of the season at Leicester.

WATCH: Akinfewa’s inspires after verbal abuse, Wycombe promotion

Adebayo Akinfenwa speech
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Adebayo Akinfenwa is living the life right now.

The 38-year-old striker has helped Wycombe Wanderers into the Football League Championship for the first time in their existence after the club beat Oxford United 2-1 in the League One playoff final on Monday.

If Akinfenwa’s name sounds familiar, it should. The muscular 38-year-old “Beast” shot into the spotlight when he used Wimbledon’s promotion to broadcast that managers should “hit him up on Whatsapp” because he wasn’t done playing the game.

[ MORE: Maguire, Solskjaer rue late Man Utd draw ]

The striker mentioned Whatsapp again on Monday, saying “The only person who can WhatsApp me tonight is Klopp so we can celebrate together. ”

He was recently in the news for vile reasons, reporting that he had been called a “fat water buffalo” in Wycombe’s semifinal win over Fleetwood Town. Akinfenwa says that if the barb wasn’t intended as racial abuse, then his opponents need to be educated on racism.

He didn’t want to speak about that on Monday.

“Today is about, listen, for me, life in football is all about opinions. Four years ago someone gave an opinion about me and that was their opinion. I hope my story shows that the only opinion that matters is the opinion you have about yourself. I was lucky and blessed to find a manager and players who believed in me. I’ll say it for the people in the back: Wycombe is in the Championship. Wait, wait, I’ll say it one more time. Wycombe’s in the Championsh- WAIT! The people in the back didn’t hear me: Wycombe is in the Championship.”

Akinfewa played the final 28 minutes of Monday’s win and his next league appearance will be the first above League One in his long career that started with Watford’s academy in 2000.

He scored 10 goals and added six assists this season, giving him 200 professional goals in more than 650 appearances.