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Southampton’s journey goes full circle

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It was the spring of 2010, March 28 to be exact, when it truly felt like Southampton Football Club was starting to stir back to life.

[ MORE: Projected lineups for EFL Cup final ] 

In front of 73,476 fans at Wembley Stadium (over 44,000 were Saints fans, plus many more embedded in the away end due to ticketing regulations) a side managed by Alan Pardew which included Morgan Schneiderlin, Jose Fonte, Adam Lallana, Michail Antonio and Rickie Lambert beat Carlisle United 4-1 to win the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy.

Seven years later they’re preparing for their first major final since 2003 and just their fourth in the past 41 years, as they face Manchester United at Wembley Stadium on Sunday.

Like a host of mid-size clubs in England, Southampton have historically felt they deserve to at least be in the top-flight and to each season challenge the established elite to win a trophy or at the very least reach a Wembley final. Now, after a humbling journey, they’re back to that.

[ MORE: Saints’ EFL semifinal victory vs. Liverpool extra sweet

Back in March 2010 Markus Liebherr (pictured, below) stood alongside the Southampton players lifting the JPT trophy in front of the Royal Box at Wembley. Liebherr single-handedly saved the club from extinction in 2009 when he bought them after they plunged into administration and were languishing in the third-tier of English soccer.

The billionaire businessman sadly passed away at the age of 62 in August 2010, leaving the club in the hands of his family, but as he took photos on his small personal camera of his team celebrating with the JPT trophy, over 44,000 fans celebrated in a sea of red and white at Wembley chanting his name. They knew the journey back to the top-flight, where they had previously spent 27-straight seasons, had begun.

Roll the clock forward seven years and a lot has changed, but a similar sea off red and white will adorn half of Wembley on Sunday as Saints requested a kit change to a special third-kit of white with red. Comparisons to the JPT final of 2010 will be made by many.

The trophy they’re competing for may be different this time around but the same feelings are present. Optimism is in the air for what lies ahead not just this weekend but for the future.

Saints were rescued in 2009 by German billionaire Markus Liebherr. Cortese was his right hand man and controlled the running of the club. Sadly Mr. Liebherr died in 2010, leaving the club in his daughter's hands.
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Liebherr’s legacy lives on (his name is still sung at every game by Southampton’s fans) heading into just the second League Cup final in their 131-year history. Their last appearance came back in 1979 when they lost to Nottingham Forest 3-2, just three years after they stunned Manchester United 1-0 to win the 1976 FA Cup as a second-tier club. Up until this point that was Southampton’s finest hour and the current squad would be held in the same regard if they could beat Man United for another famous final win.

[ MORE: Recapping Saints’ win at Arsenal

All week Saints legends of that 1976 team have popped up on TV, only too happy to acknowledge and talk about Southampton’s one and only major trophy which was won in remarkable fashion due to Bobby Stokes’ second half goal.

For generations of Sotonians that famous win against Manchester United has defined the club. They’ve grown up hearing about tales about Lawrie McMenemy, Nick Holmes, Mick Channon, Stokes, Peter Osgood and Peter Rodrigues. That underdog spirit from ’76 will be in full force once again among their 33,000-plus fans at the home of English soccer this weekend.

Saints are back where they feel they belong.

“It’s about time we should really get to a final,” club captain Steven Davis told Pro Soccer Talk after their quarterfinal win at Arsenal in December, which then led to a semifinal against Liverpool which Saints impressively won over two legs.

Their journey to the EFL Cup final has been just as impressive as they’ve beaten Premier League opposition on every step of the way without conceding a goal, just the second team in history to reach a League Cup final doing so.

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Their journey from a third-tier team in 2009 to a team now consistently finishing in the top 10 of the Premier League and aiming for a third-straight season with European qualification has been arduous, even if it has seemed rapid.

It has been riddled with high-profile departures, changes and lofty expectations. Saints have met most of the latter and dealt with the former admirably.

Behind-the-scenes many have worked tirelessly to drive them back to become an established Premier League team, with Executive Chairman Les Reed taking over the leading role and putting in place an envious scouting network and academy system which consistently produces gems.

Heading into Sunday’s clash against powerhouse Manchester United, the fans, players and current manager, Claude Puel, know that Jose Mourinho’s superstars are the heavy favorites.

They’re fine with that.

LONDON, ENGLAND - MARCH 28: Southampton celebrate after winning the Johnstone's Paint Trophy Final between Southampton and Carlisle United at Wembley Stadium on March 28, 2010 in London, England. (Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)
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Of course, Liebherr’s investment in Southampton brought financial wealth and the ability for Saints to build a stunning new training center (the main building of which is named the Markus Liebherr Pavilion) to house its world renowned academy, but it also allowed them to step back to where the fans and club felt they belonged. And then some.

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Saints splash middle-range cash to sign stars from Europe others don’t want to take a risk on (see: Sadio Mane, Dejan Lovren, Graziano Pelle) then spend time developing them before often selling them on for a huge profit. Their model is admired across the world and both financially and on the pitch it has created great success for a club of Southampton’s size and stature within the Premier League. It’s true that they spent most of their previous time in the Premier League from 1992-2005 battling relegation but now they’re back, they’re hungry to squeeze every ounce of potential out of the club.

Southampton are determined to make the most of their second chance after nearly ceasing to exist.

Sure, this season they’ve slumped a little in the Premier League, with the rigors of their disappointing Europa League group stage exit, an EFL Cup run and untimely injuries thwarting the progress of Puel’s men in the Frenchman’s first season in charge. Yet, they’ve carried on progressing in other ways off the field with huge commercial deals with companies such as Virgin Media, Under Armour and others continuing their impressive growth, plus talk of huge investment from China ongoing.

On the pitch the signings of attackers Sofiane Boufal and Manolo Gabbiadini look like very shrewd investments, once again, while they possess hugely profitable talents in Virgil Van Dijk, Oriol Romeu and Dusan Tadic as a smattering of academy products continue to develop into steady PL players.

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - JANUARY 25: Shane Long of Southampton (not pictured) celebrates with team mates after scoring his sides first goal during the EFL Cup Semi-Final Second Leg match between Liverpool and Southampton at Anfield on January 25, 2017 in Liverpool, England. (Photo by Julian Finney/Getty Images)
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Saints have locked down top talent (Tadic, Shane Long, Van Dijk, Davis, Ryan Bertrand) to new deals and the future is looking steady and secure. Yet, there’s just been one thing missing in their rise through the leagues and into Europe over the past few years: silverware.

Speaking to journalists in the tunnel at the Emirates Stadium earlier this year after Saints had beaten Arsenal in the quarterfinal on their march to Wembley, England international Ryan Bertrand explained that the players knew it’s about time the club got back to a final.

“It would be massive [to win the EFL Cup]. For the club, the massive rise that they’ve had from League One, as soon as the switch has turned they’ve seen success after success,” Bertrand said. “It’s not something that’s overdue, the silverware, but it is something that’s about the right time.”

It has taken them time but now they’re back where they believe they should be, a team which can finish just outside the perennial top six and challenge for trophies. On their day Saints can beat any team in the Premier League and they’ve done it in this cup run, dispatching Arsenal and Liverpool in the last two rounds to get to this point.

Whatever happens on Sunday at Wembley, Southampton’s progression into a top 10 side in the Premier League that can challenge for trophies should not be overlooked.

Just under seven years on from winning a trophy solely consisting of teams from the third and fourth tiers of English soccer, Southampton can secure their first piece of major silverware since 1976 and just the second-ever in its history.

It will be a big ask to beat a Man United side which has lost just once in their last 25 games in all competitions, especially without team captain and star central defender Virgil van Dijk and top scorer Charlie Austin who both miss out through injury. But then again, Southampton are used to upsetting the odds and proving everyone wrong.

They’ve spent seven-straight years doing just that.

Sunday’s final represents the biggest stage yet for Southampton to show just how far they’ve come since their second-coming began almost seven years ago at Wembley Stadium.

This journey has gone full circle.

LONDON, ENGLAND - MARCH 28: Southampton captain Dean Hammond and goalkeeper Kelvin Davis lift the trophy after winning the Johnstone's Paint Trophy Final between Southampton and Carlisle United at Wembley Stadium on March 28, 2010 in London, England. (Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)
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Cavani linked with Man United, Spurs, Chelsea

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Edinson Cavani has handed in a transfer request at Paris Saint-Germain as he’s been linked with a move to Manchester United, Tottenham and Chelsea in the January window.

PSG sporting director Leonardo confirmed that PSG met with Atletico Madrid but that they couldn’t agree a deal with the Spanish club as Cavani’s contract runs out in the summer.

“We’ve always said the same thing. We were hoping he would stay with the club, but today (Sunday) he asked to leave. We’re studying the situation. We’ve had a proposal from Atletico Madrid, but that proposal was not commensurate with the player’s value,” Leonardo said.

Cavani, 32, has also been linked with a move to the LA Galaxy and Inter Miami in recent months as his hip injury in August and subsequent fitness problems has allowed Neymar, Mauro Icardi and Kylian Mbappe to develop a devastating partnership up front for the French champions.

Tottenham’s need for a short-term solution up front is greater than any other club in the Premier League after Jose Mourinho lost Harry Kane until at least April with a serious hamstring injury. Spurs have been working hard to find a solution and Cavani, who turns 33 in February, would surely fit the bill as his characteristics as a player are very similar to Kane.

With Chelsea having Tammy Abraham as their main striker with Olivier Giroud and Michy Batshuayi as back ups, providing competition for Abraham is clearly necessary as Chelsea continue to fire blanks despite dominating games. If they’re going to finish in the top four this season they need to be more clinical in the final third as they’ve now lost to West Ham, Bournemouth, Southampton and Newcastle without scoring.

Frank Lampard admitted that he admires Cavani and refused to rule out a move for the striker this month.

“He’s (Cavani) a great player – I played against him and I always loved his mentality and his attitude. His goal-scoring record speaks for itself. I’m not absolutely aware of what the situation is, so we’ll see,” Lampard said. “He’s an experienced player but so are many other players out there! We are young as a squad so the idea of bringing in experience is not something I’m looking away from. Sometimes the younger players need a bit of help.”

As for Man United, the news that star striker Marcus Rashford is set to be out for at least the next two months was a hammer blow to their top four hopes as they sit five points behind fourth-place Chelsea in the table. Mason Greenwood is their main back-up option but with Rashford out, Anthony Martial needs to step up to the plate and kick on to replicate his fine start to the season. He didn’t do that against Liverpool in the 2-0 defeat at Anfield and this is what Solskjaer had to say about signing a new striker.

“It might be because the window is open that we look at some short-term deals as well and that could take us through until the summer.”

Who needs Cavani more? There’s no doubt the Uruguayan striker would be a stop-gap signing for all three clubs but his quality is undoubted and his physically style of play would suit the Premier League well.

He is perhaps better suited to Tottenham and Chelsea’s style of play as both rely on a true target man to build off of, while at United their attacking unit is all about pace on the counter, something Cavani doesn’t possess much of any more, bless him. However, given how well Zlatan Ibrahimovic performed at United in 2016-17, maybe the Red Devils will be eager to put their Champions League hopes on the shoulders of another veteran striker from PSG?

Cavani’s record for Napoli and PSG proves he is a world-class striker and if one of Spurs, United or Chelsea sign him this month, their chances of finishing in the top four will sky rocket. That’s how pivotal he could be, if fully fit and ready to empty his tank in Europe for the next few years before heading to Major League Soccer.

Gio Reyna: “A dream came true”

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Gio Reyna, 17, became the youngest American to play in the Bundesliga as the central midfielder, son of USMNT legend Claudio, made his debut for Borussia Dortmund in their 5-3 win at Augsburg on Saturday.

Reyna came on as a sub after a fellow sub making his Dortmund debut, Erling Haaland, had scored a 20-minute hat trick to turn the game on its head as the German giants ended up winning after trailing 3-1.

Speaking about his debut in the professional game, the U.S. U20 captain was utterly delighted and summed it up quite simply.

“A dream came true,” Reyna said. “It was a great game for us. When the coach called my name I was so excited. I was nervous but the guys made me feel comfortable.”

The talented central midfielder was promoted to Dortmund’s first team earlier this month after impressing in training during the winter break and he’s only been at the club since last summer.

“What a night! Extremely happy to make my debut but even happier for the win,” Reyna added on social media.

Safe to say USMNT fans are delighted with the rise of Reyna, while other youngsters Tyler Adams, Lynden Gooch and Josh Sargent all continue to shine in Europe with positive showings over the weekend.

Folks within the Bundesliga aren’t lowering the expectations on Reyna’s shoulders either, as an article on the website focuses on Reyna’s ‘eerily similar path’ to Dortmund as Christian Pulisic, while Dortmund’s assistant coach Jorg Heinrich believes that Reyna has more potential than Pulisic. Think about that. Stop drooling, USMNT fans.

“Gio is a fantastic talent. He has loads of potential along with plenty of confidence. I think his talent is similar to Christian Pulisic, or maybe a little bit better. But we want to keep him grounded because we’ve seen what happens to a lot of the young players,” Heinrich told Goal recently.

Setien rekindles Barcelona’s passing style in first game

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BARCELONA, Spain (AP) Coach Quique Setién only needed one match to leave his mark on Barcelona.

Barcelona set season highs for ball possession and passes in a 1-0 win over Granada on Sunday, Setién’s first match since replacing Ernesto Valverde six days earlier.

The defending champion’s level of 82% ball possession came close to reaching the all-time Spanish league record of 84% established by Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona in 2011, according to the club. The team’s 1,005 attempted passes smashed its previous season high of 788 passes against Real Betis.

One thing, however, remained the same after the coaching switch: Barcelona turned to Lionel Messi to find the winning goal. The club’s all-time leading scorer scored in the 76th minute after Granada had lost a defender for picking up a second yellow card for fouling Messi.

“You feel much better having Messi because he has been deciding these types of matches for more than a decade,” Setién said.

Setién, a former Atlético Madrid player and coach of several Spanish clubs, is a declared admirer of Barcelona’s passing style established by late Johan Cruyff.

The 61-year-old Spaniard divided fans at his previous two jobs with Las Palmas and Real Betis. He started well at both with supporters enjoying his insistence on imitating Barcelona’s style. But many fans then grew tired of seeing his teams dominate the ball while scoring few goals and proving brittle on defense.

Now with Messi and his talented teammates under his command, Setién’s has passed the first test at Camp Nou. His new side only conceded one shot on goal that, fortunately for Setién, hit the post minutes before Messi decided the game.

Setién did not touch Barcelona’s 4-3-3 formation or make any big changes in his first starting 11 compared to Valverde. Ansu Fati, the teenager who was discovered by Valverde, started for the injured Luis Suárez. Arturo Vidal, a key player for Valverde, took the place of the suspended Frenkie de Jong. Despite his reputation of not being a great passer, Vidal set up Messi’s goal with back-heel pass.

Setién insisted on the importance of his players pressing quickly to recover the ball after losing it. They responded and worked several incredibly long possessions, especially in the first half, that ended in attractive chances in the box.

“The fact that we made so many passes? The only thing I need is to have control,” he said. “We we had talked about being brave and going forward to recover the ball in their territory and that helped us to created danger after recovering the ball.”

Setién’s second-half substitution of Riqui Puig for Ivan Rakitic definitely bore his seal.

The 20-year-old Puig had earned his debut in 2018 from Valverde, but at the start of this season Valverde sent him back to the reserve team. Setién’s first move was to call Puig back up to train with the first squad.

Puig proved key to the victory when he stole the ball near Granada’s area. That led to the attack finished by Messi.

“(Puig) was very good,” Setién said. “He showed patience and he read the match well.”

TWO-TEAM RACE?

While Barcelona and Real Madrid won, most of their potential challengers lost ground just past the midpoint of the season.

Fourth-place Sevilla fell 2-1 at Madrid; sixth-place Real Sociedad lost 3-0 at Real Betis; Valencia fell into seventh place after being shocked 4-1 at lowly Mallorca this round.

Atlético Madrid, which finished the past two seasons as runners-up to champion Barcelona, had one of its poorest performances of the campaign in a 2-0 loss at Eibar. The defeat came following a loss in the Spanish Super Cup final in a penalty shootout to Madrid. Before the pair of losses, it had won three in a row in the league and had beaten Barcelona in the Super Cup semifinals- Valverde’s last match.

The defeat at Eibar left it eight points adrift in third place behind Barcelona and Madrid. Barcelona leads Madrid on goal difference.

ESPANYOL’S HOPE

Last-place Espanyol’s chances of staying in the topflight have been revived by a new coach and a new striker.

Espanyol has taken four points from the two league matches manager with Abelardo Fernández in charge. It drew with Barcelona 2-2 two weeks ago and won 2-1 at Villarreal on Sunday for its first win since Oct. 27.

Shopping for a scorer in the winter transfer market, Espanyol reportedly paid Benfica a club-record 20 million euros ($22 million) for Raúl de Tomás, who had joined Benfica during the summer.

De Tomás has made an immediate impact, scoring in his debut against a third-tier team in the Copa del Rey before taking the winner at Villarreal.

“We have been working on boosting our morale for the past two weeks, on recovering our self-confidence,” Abelardo said. “My players hadn’t forgotten how to play, as they showed (Sunday). You have to live the present instead of thinking about what can happen in two or three weeks. You have to play each match like a final.”

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

Americans Abroad: Chandler, Gooch score; Reyna, Vassilev debut

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The bar for the best weekend for Americans abroad in 2020 has been set.

After months with the under-19 side, 18-year-old Giovanni Reyna made his debut with Borussia Dortmund on Saturday. In England, Indiana Vassilev, 18, did exactly the same for Aston Villa, becoming the second youngest American to play in the Premier League.

Established Americans abroad like Timothy Chandler scored Eintracht Frankfurt’s match winner, while Lynden Gooch struck from distance for Sunderland in England’s League One.

Here is a list of several other USMNT affiliates making a name for themselves (or not) abroad this weekend.

Premier League

Christian Pulisic, Chelsea — The USMNT star continues to recover from an abductor injury.

DeAndre Yedlin, Newcastle — Yedlin is also recovering from an injury, and did not dress for Newcastle on Saturday.

Indiana Vassilev, Aston Villa – The 18-year-old came off the bench and played 23 minutes in his Premier League debut for Aston Villa. Villa drew 1-1 with Brighton & Hove Albion on Saturday.

EFL Championship

Duane Holmes, Derby County — Holmes played 90 minutes in Derby’s 1-0 win over Hull City on Saturday.

Antonee Robinson, Wigan Athletic — Robinson started and played 90 minutes in Wigan’s 2-1 loss to Swansea City on Saturday.

Matt Miazga, Reading (loan from Chelsea) — The 24-year-old dressed but didn’t feature in Reading’s 2-0 loss to Millwall.

Eric Lichaj, Hull City — The Tigers’ defender started and played for Hull.

Geoff Cameron, QPR — The 34-year-old defender played 90 minutes in QPR’s 1-0 victory ver Leeds United on Saturday.

Tim Ream, Fulham — Ream started and played 90 minutes in Fulham’s 1-0 win over Middlesbrough.

Ligue 1

Timothy Weah, Lille — Weah and Lille were inactive this weekend.

Theoson Jordan-Siebatcheu, Rennes — Jordon-Siebatcheu and Rennes were inactive this weekend. 

Eredivisie

Haji Wright, VVV-Venlo — Wright came off the bench and played five minutes in Venlo’s 1-1 draw with PSV.

Sergino Dest, Ajax — Dest dressed but didn’t feature for Ajax over the weekend. It’s been an on-and-off cycle for the fullback in Holland’s top-flight.

Desevio Payne, FC Emmen — The U-23 MNT fullback is injured and didn’t feature for FC Emmen.

Bundesliga

Timmy Chandler, Eintracht Frankfurt — The fullback played 90 minutes and scored Frankfurt’s match-winning goal on Saturday against Hoffenheim. 

Tyler Adams, RB Leipzig — Adams started and played 86 minutes in Leipzig’s 3-1 win over Union Berlin. The midfielder completed 84 percent of his passes.

Weston McKennie, Schalke — McKennie is still having some setbacks from his shoulder injury. The midfielder didn’t dress for Schalke due to fitness issues over the weekend.

Zack Steffen, Fortuna Dusseldorf — Steffen is inactive with an injury.

Alfredo Morales, Fortuna Dusseldorf Morales started and played 71 minutes in Fortuna’s 1-0 loss to Werder Bremen.

Josh Sargent, Werder Bremen  The 19-year-old started and played 86 minutes on Saturday. It’s refreshing to see Sargent back on the field, getting regular playing time after the injury.

Fabian Johnson, Borussia Mönchengladbach Johnson was on Mönchengladbach’s bench but didn’t play.

Honorable Mentions

Lynden Gooch, Sunderland — Gooch has been superlative for Sunderland lately, and on Saturday, he was rewarded with this match-deciding goal:

Ian Harkes, Dundee United — Harkes continues to grind it out in Scotland. On Sunday, he registered an assist in Dundee United’s 2-2 draw with Hibernian.