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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.

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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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La Liga head takes on FIFA over expanding Club World Cup

La Liga president critical of FIFA
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LONDON (AP) FIFA’s determination to have a bigger role in club football worldwide is troubling the head of the Spanish league.

Javier Tebas, president of La Liga, fears FIFA expanding the Club World Cup and providing a fresh windfall for a group of elite clubs will exacerbate financial disparities between teams and harm football.

The FIFA men’s club competition is due to swell from an annual competition with seven entrants to an event featuring a 24-team group stage from 2021.

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“The major risk would be the Club World Cup,” Tebas said through a translator in London. “They want to have it every two years. I don’t know how far they wish to go.”

FIFA President Gianni Infantino is considering offers from companies willing to provide financing for the competition, which is due to have a new name for its pilot edition. Tebas believes it could pose a greater challenge to European football than attempts by clubs to break away to form any Super League.

“FIFA … stopped being regulators and organizers for national teams and start to organize other kinds of tournaments which compete directly with the national leagues and this is something that concerns me because we had a balance, an ecosystem between the different leagues in Europe and different continents,” Tebas said.

“In Europe we have the Champions League and now we have an intruder who might disrupt that balance. There was already a threat of that in Europe, even though I think the risk of that has dropped significantly with the Champions League, but I think this could have an impact on the value of international competitions.”

Real Madrid president Florentino Pérez has formed the World Football Club Association, which has been formulating plans for new competitions of its own. Those proposals only emerged in reports after Pérez met with FIFA President Gianni Infantino in November.

Eight European teams are due to feature in the new Club World Cup, including Real Madrid due to its 2018 Champions League victory.

“The idea of creating new super World Cups for super clubs could be very damaging for Real Madrid and for major clubs,” Tebas said. “It’s something he’s not taking into account and I don’t really see a future for these competitions. I don’t think there’s a real passion for these kind of events. I think when people discuss this they realize it’s damaging for them.

“I always ask why we should change a system of strong international competitions… if it’s not broken, why try to fix it?”

But Infantino is determined to elevate the status of FIFA’s club competition and provide significant income to the finalists.

“We’ve seen how the Premier League has grown significantly over the last few years,” Tebas pointed out. “La Liga has also grown significantly and why would we want to change that? Why would we want to put that at risk with these sort of ideas? It’s like building castles in the sky.”

While concerned about Infantino’s plans, Tebas is supportive of UEFA President Aleksander Čeferin who has clashed regularly with his FIFA counterpart.

“If Ceferin defends European football as I have seen with national league and championships in balance, which is the current trend, I welcome this clash, this confrontation,” Tebas said. “An organisation like FIFA is supposed to be a regulatory body. They draft the different calendars and when we need to play. Sadly, from organising World Cups, they are talking about Club World Cups and having that every two years.

“That is not an option because it would change the status quo. This can’t happen. This sort of confrontation will never harm us if it goes along the path Ceferin is trying to defend.”

Tebas has been a regular critic of governments using their wealth to finance clubs, particularly Qatar at Paris Saint-Germain and Abu Dhabi at Manchester City. Both teams have been punished by UEFA for breaching spending rules and City is subject to a fresh investigation that could lead to a Champions League ban.

“One of the major issues in European football is related to (financial) doping,” Tebas said. “Because when we have clubs being financed by states then that has an impact on salaries and that means in other countries with more strict economic controls like Spain and Germany clubs cannot actually ask the state for extra financing to pay those salaries.

“This causes inflation and people think about creating other competitions because Florentino Perez and other clubs are always saying we need more money to maintain our players.”

That isn’t necessary, according to Tebas.

“I don’t think we are helping football in any way if we generate wealth and it just goes straight back to the big clubs,” Tebas said. “But that’s what’s happening, the major clubs share out the large part of the income among their players.

“In the end instead of having 12 Ferraris, they have 15. Instead of having 10 Lamborghinis they have 12. We’re dealing with major clubs generating a huge amount of money. So our aim is to redistribute that wealth. It’s not a case of creating new competitions because anything there would only benefit large clubs and channel wealth to the major car manufacturers.”

One of Tebas’ frustrations closer to home is the Spanish football federation thwarting his bid to take La Liga games overseas. But the federation has just staged its reformatted Super Cup in Saudi Arabia despite criticism of the kingdom’s human rights violations and its role in the murder of The Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi embassy in Istanbul in 2018.

Saudi Arabia has also been linked to the pirating of sports broadcasts from Qatar-owned beIN Sports to undermine its neighbor as part of a wider regional diplomatic dispute.

“The Saudi Arabian government has a policy whereby they improve the image of the government through sport – whitewashing their image,” Tebas said. “We should not forget what happened in the Turkish embassy.

“We should not forget these things. This happened in an embassy, not a pub and this is very serious, at least in my opinion. Money is not the only thing that matters.”

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

Follow AP’s global sports correspondant Rob Harris on Twitter.

USMNT left back Robinson a surprise target for AC Milan?

AC Milans wants USMNT back Robinson
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AC Milan has identified an American as a potential answer to its left back depth issues.

Hampered by Financial Fair Play concerns, the Rossoneri could be offloading Ricardo Rodriguez to Fenerbahce and chasing a replacement.

The future No. 2 to left-sided wizard Theo Hernandez? It could be Antonee Robinson.

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The England-born USMNT back is in his second season with Wigan Athletic, making a permament move from Everton this summer after a loan move in 2018/19.

From CalcioMercato.com:

“The boy is American, he has already given his go-ahead to AC Milan but at the moment he has been put on stand-by… The executives like him and it’s a bet with good potential at low cost. For now, he has to wait.”

It’s a risky move; If Milan doesn’t qualify for Europa League or Champions League, minutes behind one of the most highly-regarded left backs in the world would be scarce. The 22-year-old Hernandez has six goals and two assists in 17 appearances since arriving from Real Madrid (He’s real good).

Then again, if they don’t qualify, Hernandez might want out of Milan.

Robinson, 22, has seven senior caps for the USMNT and is a major hope to solve a problematic position for Gregg Berhalter’s program.

Only one of those caps came under Berhalter, who otherwise hasn’t called up the Olympic-eligible left back in favor of Daniel Lovitz and Tim Ream.

Robinson has also played a little left mid for the Latics this season, scoring a goal in 28 Championship matches.

Premier League Storylines: Matchweek 24

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There’s no time to languish in weekend losses, revel in big wins, or — like half the Premier League’s teams — scratch their heads about draws.

[ MORE: Premier League schedule

A delightful midweek match week arrives Tuesday before the weekend’s FA Cup fourth round scraps, and we’re quite pleased to reap the rewards.


Can Arteta get a statement win at Stamford Bridge? [ STREAM ]

  • Chelsea v. Arsenal, Tuesday (Watch live, 3:15 p.m. ET on NBCSN)

Arsenal’s Mikel Arteta was denied a statement win when these sides met on Dec. 29, a 1-0 lead turned into three dropped points due to some tactical nous from Frank Lampard. Arteta is not mincing words about the import of the return affair at Stamford Bridge, calling it a “must win” against the uneven Blues.

Invincible Watch [ STREAM ]

  • Wolves v. Liverpool, Thursday (Watch live, 3 p.m. ET on NBCSN)

Our unscientific ranking says this is the fourth-toughest test of the 16 remaining in Liverpool’s quest for Premier League immortality as an unbeaten team. Wolves played Liverpool to the bone at Anfield, falling on a Sadio Mane 42nd minute goal.

Red Devils rebound on tap [ STREAM ]

  • Manchester United v. Burnley, Wednesday (Watch live, 3:15 p.m. ET on NBCSN)

Whatever Ole Gunnar Solskjaer thinks, Manchester United’s 2-0 loss to Liverpool was not encouraging. The Red Devils also learned that Marcus Rashford is out 2-3 months, not weeks, and Burnley’s woeful defense will be feeling a lot better about this fixture than it did last week. So, of course, we should expect Anthony Martial and Mason Greenwood to have a field day, right?

Can Eagles, Saints push for Europa? [ STREAM ]

  • Crystal Palace v. Southampton, Tuesday (Watch live, 2:30 p.m. ET on NBC Sports Gold)

Palace has had an uneven season with plenty of injuries, but held off Man City to grab another point at the weekend. That’s ninth place and 30 points, two more than surging Southampton, and Sheffield United’s 33 points provide the seventh place standard. Three points here sure would be nice for either. (Big announcer voice) But only one can take all of them.

Another Brucie Bonus at Goodison Park? [ STREAM ]

  • Everton v. Newcastle United, Tuesday (Watch live, 2:30 p.m. ET on NBC Sports Gold)

When these two matched up on Dec. 28, there were 42 shots but only one goal. If this one is nearly as entertaining, get your proverbial and actual popcorn ready. Steve Bruce‘s Magpies have made a habit of surprising this season, and it’s not like they used up attacking legs while defending deep versus Chelsea.

Sixteen matches toward immortality: Ranking Liverpool’s remaining tests

Liverpool chasing unbeaten Premier League season
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Sixteen matches toward immortality.

Liverpool is now unbeaten in 22 league matches, and no claims of LiVARpool or xG luck can take much away from that.

The Reds have been dominant, their relentless players focused on the right things and showing insane stamina in making PL opposition miserable.

[ MORE: Premier League schedule

Let’s also note that the Reds are likely to be one of the greatest title winners even if they lose a couple matches. Arsenal drew 12 matches during its Invincibles season, so there’s a part of this that feels more about outdoing Man City’s 2017/18.

That’s a conversation for another day, though; Today’s talk is about weighing the challenges associated with the 16 obstacles on the road to an unbeaten league season.

Now these could change a bit as fixtures are rearranged for FA Cup purposes, but this list feels pretty good given the current state of play.

Unranked — Crystal Palace at home (March 21) and Brighton away (April 18) — Both of these dates are very easy on the eyes, but will be moved if Liverpool is alive in the FA Cup.

Currently scheduled for March 21, days before an international break, you’d peg the Palace fixture as a win. If Liverpool or Palace are in the FA Cup, however, and this match is moved elsewhere on the calendar, it becomes more of a challenge.

Same is true for the Brighton away date, which may fall between the UCL quarterfinal second leg and an FA Cup semifinal. Liverpool may be in both competitions.

14. West Ham at home, Feb. 24 — A full six days after the UCL first leg in Madrid, the Reds will be rested enough.

13. Newcastle away, May 17 — If the Reds get to Decision Day needing a draw or better against the Magpies, bring champagne.

12. West Ham away, Jan. 29 — A bit odd because of the rescheduling from the Club World Cup placing this days before a visit from Saints to give the Reds four matches in 12 days.

11. Southampton at home, Feb. 1 — The fourth of those four matches in 12 days.

10. Norwich City away, Feb. 15 — We know Liverpool takes matches one at a time and this one comes on two weeks rest, but there’s always the chance the Reds are a bit ‘off’ with a trip to Atletico Madrid up next.

9. Watford away, Feb. 29 — Leap year vibes. Nigel Pearson‘s men are playing better, but this still feels too much to ask of the Hornets.

8. Burnley at home, April 25 — Like the Brighton match above, this one could be really tough and sandwiched between an FA Cup and Champions League match day….

7. Aston Villa at home, April 11 — If Liverpool gets past Atleti, it will face the Villans between UCL quarterfinal match days.

6. Bournemouth at home, March 7 — Days after the FA Cup fifth round date, the currently-struggling Cherries will hope Liverpool doesn’t have Atleti put away and concerns about the March 11 visit from Diego Simeone’s men for the UCL Round of 16 second leg.

5. Chelsea at home, May 9 — The season’s penultimate fixture comes against a team which challenged the Reds properly at Stamford Bridge. It could also be days after the UCL semifinal second leg.

(Photo by Matthew Ashton – AMA/Getty Images)

4. Wolves away, Thursday — Wolves have an extra day’s rest and no FA Cup worries this weekend (though it can be argued neither does Liverpool, with a less-than-meaningful trip to Shrewsbury Town). This is a tough one.

3. Everton away, March 14 — Sandwiched between the UCL second leg v. Atletico Madrid and a possible FA Cup quarterfinal, a derby is a derby and Carlo Ancelotti‘s the top Everton tactician in some time. Jurgen Klopp won’t be goofing around with backups this time, will he?

2. Arsenal away, May 2 — You laugh now, but if the season makes it to Match No. 36, the Gunners will be one of the last three with a chance to defend their status as the last unbeaten team in PL history.

It would be a very live Emirates, and possibly come between the Champions League semifinal legs (We’re also assuming Mikel Arteta continues his steadyinf of the Gunners defense).

1. Man City away, April 4 — Taking place 3-4 days before the UEFA Champions League quarterfinals and on the heels of an international break, it’s the lone date on the calendar that Liverpool won’t be heavy favorites to win.