Getty Images

Three things learned from Saints’ win at Liverpool

Leave a comment

LIVERPOOL — Southampton beat Liverpool 1-0 at Anfield on Wednesday to seal a memorable victory and their first appearance in the League Cup final since 1979.

Shane Long‘s late goal secured a 2-0 aggregate victory as Saints will now play either Manchester United or Hull City in the final next month at Wembley Stadium.

Here’s what we learned from a bitterly cold night at Anfield as Liverpool’s shocking January continued.


LACKLUSTER LIVERPOOL

You can’t say it hasn’t been coming.

Liverpool had failed to win any of their previous six games in January and they huffed and puffed without much penetration. With Philippe Coutinho still getting back to his best, Daniel Sturridge too static for much of the night and the duo of Adam Lallana and Roberto Firmino forced further out wide to find space, the same issues which have stalled Liverpool in recent weeks cropped up.

It is rare that a Klopp side doesn’t look dynamic or pacey in the final third. This happened to them in the first leg at St Mary’s and it happened again at Anfield.

With flares and huge crowds in the streets around Anfield before kick off, this felt like one of the big European nights they’ve been accustomed to over the years. Unlike many other famous semifinals in the past, the team didn’t deliver.

Sturridge sent two acrobatic efforts over the bar and Coutinho went close but one Liverpool fan sat behind the shivering press box summed it up best: “This is our night of frustration, isn’t it?”

Now that dreams of a potential Wembley final against Manchester United are over, Liverpool only have the FA Cup and a battle for the top four to worry about. If their poor form continue and an under-strength side falls to second-tier Wolverhampton Wanderers at the weekend and then loses to PL-leading Chelsea next Wednesday, the lingering title hopes will be dashed and Klopp will be under plenty of pressure to finish in the top four.


SAINTS COME OF AGE

Just like the first leg, Saints sat back and let Liverpool have the ball.  They were then lethal on the counter as Ryan Bertrand and Nathan Redmond linked up superbly down the left to give young right back Trent Alexander-Arnold (only drafted into the team due to Nathaniel Clyne‘s injury) a horrid night, especially in the first half.

Southampton weathered a brutal storm late in the second half as Liverpool poured forward in search of the single goal which would take the game to extra time. But Saints, who crashed out of the UEFA Europa League in brutal circumstances in the group stage finale and have been inconsistent in the PL all season, but they held on and grabbed the result they needed.

Claude Puel‘s nickname as a player was “the dog” for his performances for Monaco. His team dug in and displayed that grit to go on the road and grind out the resulted they needed.

Southampton’s feat of reaching their first major cup final since 2003 and only their second-ever final in this competition was made more impressive due to the fact that they had two unfancied center backs who stood out. Saints lost star center back Virgil Van Dijk through injury in the win against Leicester on Sunday and Jose Fonte finally left for West Ham last week. Youngster Jack Stephens stepped up big time as the 22-year-old, like many of his Southampton teammates, came of age at the perfect moment.

For the first time since they won the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy as third-tier club in 2010, Saints are heading back to Wembley. Reaching this final underlines an incredible seven-year journey from the depths of the lower leagues to a major final and becoming a Premier League mainstay.

It was made even sweeter for Saints and their fans given the fact that Liverpool have paid $115 million to take five of their star players over the past few years.


FATIGUE TELLING

Deep into the second half, one Liverpool fan stood up and shouted: “Come on, it’s a semifinal!”

Liverpool knew it but they couldn’t kick on. They were moved from side to side by a solid Southampton defense but never looked like having the energy to get in-behind them.

Just like against Swansea City, Liverpool had no life left in them in the dying stages.

Klopp’s methods may be taking its toll at the same stage it did last season and it will be intriguing to see how Liverpool recover from this hammer blow.

The return of Sadio Mane will help but that won’t be for a couple of weeks. Klopp’s men badly need a boost ahead of the massive clash against Chelsea on Tuesday at Anfield. If they lose a third-straight game at home, Liverpool’s title hopes are over.

Panama boss blunt and honest before nation’s World Cup debut

Photo by Trond Tandberg/Getty Images
Leave a comment

SOCHI, Russia (AP) — Panama coach Hernan Dario Gomez isn’t in the business of sugarcoating the truth before his team makes history by playing in its first World Cup.

The Central American team has trouble scoring and his players will need to have a good day to have any chance against Belgium on Monday, he said.

[ MORE: Latest 2018 World Cup news ] 

Blunt and honest, Gomez didn’t even hide his starting lineup, the normal way of doing things for coaches these days. And when asked if Panama could repeat Iceland’s upset against Argentina — the teams drew 1-1 on Saturday — the Colombian didn’t bother picking the right words when downplaying the Argentine squad.

“Iceland sent Croatia to the playoffs (in European qualifying), and it did well in the European Championship as well,” Gomez said. “It played against an Argentina squad which isn’t at the same level as Belgium right now. I mean, the distance between Iceland and Argentina isn’t as significant as the distance between Belgium and Panama.”

Gomez didn’t completely dismiss Panama’s chances of a surprise result against the Belgians, saying “anything can happen in football,” but admitted it wouldn’t be normal.

“It’s very clear that they are the favorites,” the 62-year-old coach said. “But each game is different, and if we have a good day, maybe we can achieve something.”

[ MORE: Where to watch Monday’s games, feat. England and Belgium ]

If Panama does find a way to advance past the group stage, Gomez said he already knows how he will be celebrating.

“I’ll drink two bottles of vodka,” he said laughing, before taking it back. “No, no … we are professionals.”

Gomez didn’t bother keeping his lineup a secret for the match in Sochi, naming the 11 starters without hesitating when asked about it. He even frankly talked about the formation his team would be playing Monday.

Gomez said Panama won’t be trying anything but defending against the talented Belgians, and admitted that scoring goals has been a weakness of his team entering the tournament.

“We’ve become strong on defense. It’s Panama’s virtue,” he said. “Panama isn’t a team that will score a lot of goals. We may create good chances in some matches, but we aren’t able to score. We arrive at the World Cup with problems scoring the goals.”

[ LIVE: World Cup scores ]

The 55th-ranked Panama drew 0-0 with Northern Ireland and lost 1-0 to Norway in its final warm-up matches before traveling to Russia.

It qualified for the tournament by finishing ahead of the United States in CONCACAF thanks to a last-minute victory over Costa Rica in qualifying.

Gomez said the team carries a big responsibility by representing the nation at a World Cup for the first time, and his biggest job is to get the players ready for the pressure they are about to face.

“The whole country is excited about this,” Gomez said. “I have to prepare the players mentally.”

Gomez has been coaching Panama since 2014. He was previously with Ecuador, Guatemala and Colombia.

Panama’s other Group G games will be against England on Sunday and Tunisia on June 28.

Maradona: Argentina drawing Iceland is “a disgrace”

AP Photo/Ricardo Mazalan
1 Comment

It’s been a pretty trying and criticism-filled 36 hours for Lionel Messi and Argentina, and that was already true before the World Cup hero that is Diego Maradona weighed in.

[ MORE: Where to watch Monday’s games, feat. England and Belgium ]

No longer are La Albiceleste simply known as the side that drew tiny Iceland — the smallest nation to ever qualify for the World Cup — but now their efforts on Saturday have been dubbed “a disgrace” by Maradona.

It’s not so much the players whom Maradona, manager of the national team for the 2010 World Cup (quarterfinals appearance, beaten 4-0 by Germany), has gone after, but current boss Jorge Sampaoli for his lack of a proper gameplan befitting the opponent. As for Messi, who failed to convert a critical penalty kick, Maradona has absolved the Barcelona superstar of much of the blame — quotes from the BBC:

“It’s a disgrace. Not having prepared for the match knowing that Iceland are all [6-foot-3] tall.”

“I get the feeling there’s an anger at the heart of the team.”

“I don’t blame the players. I could blame the lack of work rate. But I can’t blame the players, much less Messi, who gave it all he had,” said Maradona.

“I missed five penalties on the spin and I was still Diego Armando Maradona. I don’t think that they dropped two points because Messi missed a penalty.”

England squad reconnects with fans with image makeover

Photo by Oleg Nikishin/Getty Images
Leave a comment

VOLGOGRAD, England (AP) — Whatever happens to England at the World Cup, at least the reception facing the squad should be less brutal than it was in 2014 after its exit following the group stage.’

[ MORE: Latest 2018 World Cup news ] 

For once, the players can’t be accused of hiding away, retreating behind their headphones. The hallmark of England’s preparations for Russia has been shedding the past reticence to engage with the public, a calculated move by the team leadership to reconnect with a public disaffected by years of failure at tournaments and uninspiring performances.

“They appear more relaxed. They appear more normal,” supporter Gavin Hughes said, overlooking the Volgograd Arena where England opens its World Cup campaign against Tunisia on Monday. “They appear human. They are just lads playing football at the end of the day. That’s been the problem in the past. There’s more of a togetherness.”

A defining clip of the 2010 World Cup was Wayne Rooney bellowing down the barrel of a camera after a 0-0 draw with Algeria: “Nice to see your home fans booing you, that’s what loyal support is.”

That disconnect with the public has been bridged by the 23-man squad facing the media in a 45-minute, Super Bowl-style session before leaving for Russia. The English Football Association’s approach is in a marked contrast to club duty where they are largely closeted away, save for appearances with paying broadcasters or often in controlled appearances.

[ MORE: Where to watch Monday’s games, feat. England and Belgium ]

“We’ve done a lot for the fans on social media so they can see what we are up to, which has not always been the case,” captain Harry Kane said Sunday. “It’s important while we have free time is to try to let the fans know what we are up to.”

The public is seeing a new side of the players. Not only are they more relatable but painted in a more sympathetic light, beyond the caricatures of millionaire mercenaries just chasing more money.

“That connection with the supporters is really important,” coach Gareth Southgate said. “There have been perceptions about our players for a long time … so it’s been really good for our public to see how much it means to the players to play, to see a different side of their personality.”

In a move unthinkable in years gone by, when a since-departed FA official blocked Rooney talking about his Christianity, defender Danny Rose recently opened up on his problems dealing with depression. Publicly praised by Prince William for raising awareness of health issues, Rose realizes how players can use their new platform to show their human side and inspire others.

“A lot of people messaged me to say thank you, that they know someone who is going through this or has been through that and that I’ve helped them and given them the confidence to express themselves,” Rose said. “We have a lot of down time and I’m going to think of something to help others when I get back. I’ve got time to think while I’m here and when I get back from the World Cup about how I can go forward and help people.”

[ LIVE: World Cup scores ]

It’s not just about the players feeding a voracious traveling media pack with material. Kieran Trippier, who is also Rose’s club teammate at Tottenham, told the left back he appeared no longer burdened by a private plight in England’s last World Cup warm-up game.

“I was playing with a bit of freedom,” Rose said of the victory against Costa Rica. “I think he’s got a point.”

Southgate is credited with encouraging the warmer environment, far removed from the controlling regimes under Fabio Capello and Gary Neville, who was Roy Hodgson’s assistant for the dismal 2014 World Cup and 2016 European Championship last-16 humbling to Iceland. A bemusing, running theme in the British papers at Euro 2016 in France was the players’ refusal to divulge any details of a darts tournament. The squad has been overhauled by Southgate and it has even been playing darts with the media at the World Cup base near St. Petersburg.

Southgate has been playing his part, going to fan forums in the buildup to the tournament to recognize the commitment and cost involved watching England abroad.

“Sometimes those really good people who follow us are overlooked at the expense of some who have caused problems in the past,” Southgate said.

Ultimately, results dictate the public mood and England hasn’t won a knockout game at any tournament since 2006.

“It’s about how we perform,” Southgate said, “but there’s a bigger picture.”

WATCH: World Cup, Day 5 — England, Belgium enter the fray

Photo by Alex Morton/Getty Images
Leave a comment

The weekend might be all but over, but that doesn’t mean that 2018 World Cup action is slowing down anytime soon.

[ MORE: Latest 2018 World Cup news ] 

Monday, in fact, will be quite the opposite, as Group G giants — and a pair of popular dark horse picks — Belgium and England make their debut in Russia, taking on Panama and Tunisia, respectively.

Following Germany’s 1-0 loss to Mexico on Sunday, Group F is currently turned upside down on its head. Sweden and South Korea, who’ll face off in the day’s opener, are even more hopeful now than prior to the start of the tournament.

Below is Monday’s schedule in full.

Click here for live and on demand coverage of the World Cup online and via the NBC Sports App.


2018 World Cup schedule – Monday, June 18

Group F
Sweden vs. South Korea: Nizhny Novgorod, 8 a.m. ET – LIVE COVERAGE

Group G
Belgium vs. Panama: Sochi, 11 a.m. ET – LIVE COVERAGE
Tunisia vs. England: Volgograd, 2 p.m. ET –LIVE COVERAGE