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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.

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights

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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Americans Abroad: Weekend Roundup

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One of the youngest Americans playing abroad had arguably the biggest weekend of any of his USMNT-eligible teammates.

Playing in his first derby for Ajax against PSV in league play, Dest started and set up teammate Dusan Tadic for a goal. Interestingly, with the Netherlands FA working to get Dest to commit to the Oranje moving forward, Dest had the chance to match up against Denzel Dumfries, the current first choice right back for the Netherlands.

The other big story? Christian Pulisic didn’t play again. More on that below.

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

Premier League

Christian Pulisic, Chelsea — Pulisic made the bench but didn’t appear for a third-straight match. Lampard explained to our own JPW why Pulisic has been on the sidelines.

DeAndre Yedlin, Newcastle — The fullback returned to training following a serious groin injury. There’s no timeline on his return yet, however.

EFL Championship

Antonee Robinson, Wigan Athletic — Robinson is a fixture at Wigan. The young left back started and played the full 90 minutes as Wigan picked up a win over a top-ten opponent, Charlton Athletic

Matt Miazga, Reading (loan from Chelsea) — The 24-year-old is out with a hamstring injury. There’s no timeline on his return.

Eric Lichaj, Hull City — The Tigers captain started and played the full 90 minutes in Hull City’s 3-0 win over Luton Town.

Geoff Cameron, QPR — The 34-year-old defender started at centerback and went the full 90, picking up a yellow card in QPR’s 2-1 win over Millwall.

Tim Ream, Fulham — Ream started and played 90 minutes in Fulham’s 1-1 draw at Sheffield Wednesday.

Cameron Carter-Vickers, Stoke City (loan Tottenham Hotspur) — Carter-Vickers started and went the full 90 minutes as Stoke City picked up just its second point of the season in a scoreless draw with Brentford.

Duane Holmes, Derby County — Holmes made his second-straight start after coming back from injury, and his first 90 minutes on the pitch as Derby County secured a last-gasp 1-1 draw with league-leading Leeds United.

EFL League One

Lynden Gooch, Sunderland – Gooch started and played the full 90 minutes, though Sunderland needed a last-minute goal from Aiden McGeady to draw at Bolton. .

Bundesliga

Weston McKennie, Schalke —  McKennie started, picked up a yellow card in the second half and then was substituted in the 76th minute, before Schalke scored a late winner in a 2-1 victory over Mainz.

Zack Steffen and Alfredo Morales, Fortuna Dusseldorf — Steffen started and played all 90 minutes in Fortuna Dusseldorf’s 2-1 defeat to rivals Borussia Monchengladbach. Steffen recorded a handful of incredible, point-blank saves to keep Fortuna in the game. Morales did not dress again.

Josh Sargent, Werder Bremen  With an injury crisis, Sargent got the start and played 80 minutes. Unfortunately for Sargent and Werder, they were routed by Leipzig – even without Tyler Adams.

Tyler Adams, RB Leipzig — Adams remains inactive with a groin injury. There’s no timeline on his return.

Fabian Johnson, Borussia Mönchengladbach Johnson didn’t make Borussia Monchengladbach’s 18 for their match against Fortuna Dusseldorf.

Timmy Chandler, Eintracht Frankfurt — The veteran defender entered off the bench in the 83rd minute as Eintracht secured a massive 2-2 draw with Borussia Dortmund.

Julian Green, Greuther Furth – The 24-year-old midfielder started and played the full 90 minutes for Greuther Furth. Unfortunately, they lost 2-0 to league-leading Stuttgart in the 2. Bundesliga.

Eredivisie

Sergino Dest, Ajax — Dest started at right back in his first edition of “De Topper,” starring as Ajax drew 1-1 at PSV Eindhoven. Dest played the full 90 minutes and had an assist on Dusan Tadic’s goal.

Haji Wright, VVV-Venlo — The 21-year-old striker came off the bench in the 71st minute of VVV’s 1-0 loss to Willen II.

Desevio Payne, FC Emmen — The U-23 MNT fullback was left out of FC Emmen’s 18 once again. 

Ligue 1

Timothy Weah, Lille — Weah remains sidelined with a muscular injury. There’s no timeline on his return.

Theoson Jordan-Siebatcheu, Rennes — Siebatcheu made the 18 but did not feature in Rennes 1-1 draw with Lille.

Honorable Mentions:

Chris Richards, Bayern Munich II – The young Alabama native started and played the full 90 minutes as FC Bayern II defeated FC Ingolstadt, which was in the 2. Bundesliga just last season.

Andrija Novakovich, Frosinone – The 23-year-old striker, now in Serie B after five seasons on the books with Reading, made his first start for Frosinone, going 55 minutes in a 1-1 draw with Venezia.

Giovanni Reyna, Borussia Dortmund U-19 – Reyna started, scored, and played 77 minutes in Dortmund U-19s 6-1 win over Leverkusen. The 16-year-old attacker also scored earlier in the week in a 2-1 win over Barcelona U-19s in the UEFA Youth League.

Luca De La Torre, Fulham Reserves – Luca de la Torre is still stuck at Spurs without getting first team minutes, but he had a night to remember in the PL2. The 21-year-old midfielder scored the first, and game-winning-goal in a 90-minute performance as Fulham beat Reading U-23s, 5-4.

Serie A Roundup: Roma, Napoli, Lazio all win

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Edin Dzeko‘s last-gasp winner for AS Roma headlines a busy day in Serie A action on Sunday.

[ MORE: Serie A scores, schedule ]

Bologna 1-2 Roma

Roma kept its unbeaten start to the 2019-2020 Serie A season thanks to a 94th-minute Edin Dzeko winner. The American-owned club first took the lead in the 49th minute through another former Premier League player, Aleksandar Kolarov. The Serbian delightfully placed a free kick at the top of the box over the wall and into the top corner.

However, Bologna quickly capitalized after Kolarov bundled over Roberto Soriano in the box, leading to a penalty kick call that VAR confirmed. Nicola Sansone waited for Roma goalkeeper Pau Lopez to move and then slotted the ball into the right corner to tie the match.

Roma went down to ten men in the 85th minute when new signing Gianluca Mancini, a centerback, picked up his second yellow card for a foul on Felipe Santander as he was about to run into the box. And yet, even though Roma was on the ropes, Dzeko popped up in a pocket of space at the top of the six-yard box and powered home a header just before the final whistle to win the game. With the win, Roma jumps into the top four with eight points from four games.

Lecce 1-4 Napoli

Don’t tell Fernando Llorente that his best days are behind him.

Having left Tottenham in search of more first team minutes, Llorente just scored for the second-game straight as he bagged a brace in Napoli’s rout on the road over Lecce. At 34-years old, the crafty veteran may be the perfect age for star striker in Italy, with Cristiano Ronaldo and Fabio Quagliarella (26 goals last year at age 36) all at a similar age.

Llorente took advantage of his experience in the 28th minute, latching onto a blocked shot from Arkadiusz Milik that dribbled into the middle of the box, leaving Llorente for an easy finish past Lecce goalkeeper Gabriel.

VAR gave Napoli a controversial penalty kick in the 35th minute off a handball from Panagiotis Tachtsidis in the box. Lorenzo Insigne stepped up to take the penalty kick and his spot kick was saved expertly by Gabriel. However, the referee awarded a do-over after seeing Gabriel was a step off his line before the ball was kicked. Insigne didn’t miss on the second attempt, putting Napoli up 2-0.

Fabian Ruiz in the second half curled home an absolute beauty to put Napoli up 3-0. Lecce cut the decide by one with a penalty kick goal, but Llorente gave Napoli their three-goal lead again with another one-on-one finish from close.

Elsewhere in Serie A

Sassuolo 3-0 SPAL

Sampdoria 1-0 Torino

Atalanta 2-2 Fiorentina

Lazio 2-0 Parma

What should Emery do with Xhaka?

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Arsenal fans have directed their ire at many different people, but aside from manager Unai Emery, many fans have been criticizing the recent play of midfielder Granit Xhaka.

Named Arsenal captain this summer after Laurent Koscielny‘s insubordination and eventual departure, Xhaka looked set to take Arsenal to the next level this summer, with three stars up top and a veteran defense behind him. However, in Premier League matches where Arsenal has struggled, it seems that Xhaka has been right in the middle of it. Sometimes, that’s just because of his holding midfield position. Other times, it’s because he didn’t make the play that was necessary.

[READ: 10-man Arsenal beats Aston Villa in a thriller]

Take Saturday’s eventual 3-2 win by Arsenal over Aston Villa at the Emirates Stadium. Despite having a decent game by all accounts, Xhaka allowed Ahmed El Mohamady to run right past him on a mazy run through the middle of the field, eventually centering to Wesley which gave Aston Villa a 2-1 lead. It gave the visitors the advantage yet again right after Arsenal equalized.

Xhaka had every chance to try and make a tackle, or at the least bring El Mohamady down farther from goal if there was no choice but to foul and give up a free kick. Instead, Xhaka just followed El Mohamady before passing him off to a teammate in the box, who was equally as poor.

Not long after, Xhaka was substituted, with some Arsenal fans raining boos down on their captain. And whether it had to do with him or not, Arsenal went from a goal down to a goal up once Xhaka left the field.

According to manager Unai Emery, Xhaka was taken off in the 72nd minute not due to his performance, but to bring on fresh legs. It was a double substitution, with Dani Ceballos also coming off in place of Lucas Torreira and Joe Willock.

“My opinion is we need our supporters and we need our supporters helping each player but our responsibility is to transmit our capacity, our spirit, our commitment and behavior,” Emery said after the game. “And Xhaka is doing that. He played very well on Thursday and also last week in Watford he played with a good individual performance. Today I changed him because on Thursday he played 90 minutes and prefer to use fresh players for today a chance for him but for me Xhaka is very good player for us. He has a very big commitment here. He is improving and I am not asking the people to support him but I am sure that he is going to achieve the best thing individually and collectively for the supporters to help him.”

Just one week earlier, Xhaka claimed that his Arsenal teammates – and presumably himself as well – were “scared” in the second half as Watford stormed back for a 2-2 draw. Man City’s 8-0 pummeling of Watford makes that draw look even worse in retrospect.

If Arsenal is “scared,” and they’re giving up two goals in two straight matches each to two of the worst defensive teams in the league, then perhaps the club captain isn’t doing enough. It seems that although Xhaka has experience, he’s going through a rough patch of form in the Premier League – he looked good in Europa League action – and might do well with a match off.

Luckily for Arsenal, if Emery does agree to give Xhaka a rest, he has a talented player in Lucas Torreira who will run himself into the ground for the team. In addition, he’d likely have stopped that run from El Mohamady instead of letting him glide into the box with hardly a challenge.

It appears Unai Emery is publicly sticking with Xhaka. Arsenal needs Xhaka at his best to make it back into the top four. But right now, he’s clearly not there, and he needs to figure things out on the training pitch so he can shine once again.

Neymar scores late again in PSG win

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Paris Saint-Germain fans may have to return to liking Neymar again.

For the second consecutive Ligue 1 match, Neymar scored late to give PSG all three points in a massive 1-0 win at Lyon. With the win, PSG moved into a three-point lead in the Ligue 1 table.

[READ: Lampard explains why Pulisic has remained on the bench]

After being involved in the buildup in the 87th minute, Neymar found a pocket of space at the top of the box. After receiving the ball and facing up his defenders, he made a quick move to his left, took two steps and fired a strike into the low far corner to put PSG in front.

PSG fans have come out pretty clearly since the summer when news reports surrounding Neymar and his camp made it clear he preferred to leave PSG for a return to Barcelona. It appeared he was willing to give up on his dream to lead the line and be a new star for a team in another league, but the transfer never happened, mainly for financial reasons.

And yet, despite missing most of preseason recovering from his ankle injury suffered on international duty, Neymar returned to the side for coach Thomas Tuchel and has scored two massive goals to help earn PSG six points.

To Neymar’s credit, it appears he’s put his head down since the end of the transfer window and is working hard for his club and his teammates. Despite his hatred from fans and general observers for some of his on-the-field and off-the-field antics, he seems to have the trust of his PSG teammates, and there were many reports that Luis Suarez and Lionel Messi were the ones pushing for Neymar to come back from within Barcelona.

Even if he can’t win over some PSG fans for threatening to leave the club, more goals like these will certainly endear him to fans who may have been indifferent over the transfer saga.

Watch the goal below: