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Southampton’s Puel puts the pressure on Man United

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SOUTHAMPTON — Calm. Quiet. Focused.

Those are the best words to sum up not only Southampton’s manager Claude Puel most of the time, but especially this week. Think of that famous Seinfeld episode where Kramer learns to relax: “Serenity now!”

[ MORE: Saints’ journey goes full circle

For Puel, his first season managing in England has been far from relaxing. His team have already played 39 games this season across the Europa League group stage, FA Cup, EFL Cup and Premier League. The former Monaco, Lille, Lyon and Nice boss has now led his Southampton side to just the fourth major final in their 131-year history, as he has the chance to become just the second Saints manager to win a major trophy after Lawrie McMenemy in 1976 when they beat Manchester United to win the FA Cup and became heroes.

Serenity, now. The steely, soft spoken Frenchman is not getting distracted.

[ MORE: Latest EFL Cup final news ]

Puel has kept the focus on this game and he doesn’t want to talk about what it would be like to lead the team out at Wembley, even though he recognize the importance of the occasion.

Speaking exclusively to Pro Soccer Talk on a gloriously sunny late winter afternoon in Southern England, he has called for his team to write a new chapter in Southampton’s rather barren history book when it comes to trophies.

“It is an exciting game, I know the last win in the cup was 1976… it is time, perhaps to finally win another trophy,” Puel smiled. “I would like to, and all the players are with me, to give our fans a fantastic pleasure and enjoyment. It has been fantastic to see them always since the start of the season in every competition. To see 8,000 fans away at Inter Milan, it was fantastic. It will be a big reward and always our fans deserve a good result.

“For the moment it is important to keep our calm, a good concentration, good focus about our game. Just to think about the consequence of the result it would not be a good thing. It is important to play a strong game against this great team and to put in place a good collective, to defend together and also to take any opportunity to score and to go forward with danger.”

This week none of Southampton players have been permitted to speak with media outlets, with all of their pre-final interviews completed last week before they jetted off to Spain to enjoy a few days of intensive training in the sun. Saints are ready, prepared and focused.

Puel admitted his side are the underdogs against Jose Mourinho’s red-hot Manchester United this Sunday.

With United losing just one of their last 25 games in all competitions the pressure is is off Southampton, just like it was at Arsenal in the quarterfinal and especially in the semifinal victory against Liverpool.

“Yes, I think there is a big pressure for Manchester [United]” Puel said. “People expect a win for Manchester. We respect them but don’t fear team. In football all is possible. We saw this in the last game, the semifinal against Liverpool. We are the underdogs. I think it is important to respect them but to keep the good attitude and positive spirit and to believe in us. That’s the most important.”

The 55-year-old Frenchman won three French cups with Monaco as a player, while lost in the French League Cup final as a manager with Monaco in 2001. He hopes his experiences of playing and coaching in finals will help, even though it doesn’t stack up to Mourinho’s supreme trophy-wining ability.

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Over the two-legged semifinal against Liverpool, Saints had countless quality chances on the counter and although they beat Jurgen Klopp‘s side 1-0 home and away, they could’ve won more convincingly. The problem for Puel and Saints all season long has been being clinical. That create good chances but haven’t been finishing. New club-record signing Manolo Gabbiadini could be the difference on Sunday with the Italian international scoring three goals in two games since arriving in January from Napoli.

But Puel wants his team to be prepared to win anyway they can.

“All the games are different, sometimes we can have good possession and good set pieces, good possibilities,” Puel said. “Other games it is difficult, like against Liverpool because perhaps in the set pieces they were better than us. It is important for my players and my team to play with possibilities and the abilities with set pieces, possession and to counter-attack. I like that my players can have a good adaptation against any opponent. For me it is important to have the ability and capacity to play against any opponent, it is a good thing for the future.”

[ MORE: Latest EFL Cup final news

For the future, the prospect of Saints getting back into Europe is at the forefront of Puel’s mind. This season, their first in the Europa League group stage, they endured a disappointing exit on the total number of away goals scorer between themselves and Hapoel Be’er Sheva.

Reaching Europe for a third-straight season only appears possible through winning the EFL Cup as Southampton plod along in 11th place in the Premier League table. That’s something Puel wants, badly.

“For me it’s not just the opportunity to win a trophy, of course it is most important because a trophy is history and special. But for me the first thing in my mind is the opportunity to perhaps find again the European games next season, Puel explained. “It is most important to continue this work because we can play in different competitions this season, European games with young players and it was the first time they can play all these games. It will be interesting, very important to continue this work for next season and to find again possibilities to play these important games with change of teams and to have game time and to learn and improve with game time and maturity. All of this, for me, is this the most important to develop all of the squad.”

Can the Premier League form pick up if they win the EFL Cup?

“For the moment the Premier League has been frustrating,” Puel said. “Since the beginning of the season we can do good quality, good work without a good reward and without finding the good clinical without and with a lot of opportunities to score without conceding a lot of chances against us. Just before Boxing Day we were seventh place in the table, just two or three points off Manchester United. It is important to react and give a good answer. This final is an opportunity to give the season a good atmosphere, good spirit and a good reward for our fans and for our players also. In January and at the beginning of February we lost too many games. Which is is unusual for us.”

What is unusual for Puel is his current surroundings.

For a man who spent his entire 17-year playing career at Monaco, then 15 more years managing some of France’s top clubs, living on England’s South Coast is a little bit of a different proposition.

Still, Puel feels at home and enjoys being by the water in Hampshire and, most importantly, around knowledgeable fans who love their club passionately. Even if he can’t stroll down to the pub too often…

“It is difficult for me, like a lot of trainers I stay just focused about football. I read what Guardiola said, that it wasn’t possible for him to do anything else for 32 minutes. Perhaps for me it is 35 minutes,” Puel laughed. “It is a nice city, very interesting and I like the sea, it is the same as Monaco, for me.

“The weather is good, I was surprised because there is a lot of sun. Often I am surprised about this. I like this. I also like the atmosphere of the fans and people around the team, around the football, because I find that the fans know the football. They’re not just spectators. I like this. They give strong and fantastic opinions of the team and the players. I like this because it is a football country.”

Puel admitted that when he does get some free time, he’s been reminded by many how he and his players will become legends in the City of Southampton if they manage to upset United and joined the famous team of 1976 in the history books.

“We will see the result after this game. The most important thing is to focus about our game. The attitude of my players. It is important,” Puel said. “It is not me. That’s a shame, that I cannot play. It is fantastic for the fans and for the players to play in an exciting game. It is important to play this game with all the possibilities, attitude and a good spirit. To give their quality it is important they will stay focused.”

Focus is the buzzword around Southampton.

As a player at Monaco, Puel was (this will come as a huge shock) known for his focus, dedication and commitment. He was nicknamed “the dog” for his ferocious work as a midfield enforcer in Arsene Wenger‘s teams — to this day he is still good friends with the Arsenal manager — and tales of him flying into tackles in training with his players during his time at Lille, plus keeping up with them fitness-wise in drills, are commonplace around the French game.

Does he still join in with training now? Puel, somewhat begrudgingly, admitted he only fills in now and then when they need an extra man in games.

“Sometimes when I go to play on the pitch, sometimes the feeling of the player comes back,” Puel smiled. “It is difficult because now I have to be calm, I am a trainer… It is finished now, my playing. It is better.”

When you see him celebrate and jump up and down on the touchline during games as a manager, you get to understand a little more about his personality and his past as a player. Even if he isn’t box-office with quotes in his press conferences and is still mastering the English language, Puel is making his mark.

With Saints fans traveling from all over the world and snapping up tickets wherever they can to see their team in a major final at Wembley, Puel has a simple message for them.

All of the focus and hard work, it’s for them, and he is clearly blown away by the global reach of the Premier League.

“It is fantastic to have all of these fans all over the world,” Puel said. “The Premier League, before I came I knew it was a great championship with many fans in the world but when I see all this atmosphere, the positive atmosphere around the club with all the fans, I can just tell them thank you. I hope we can give them all the pleasure and enjoyment for this game.”

If Southampton win on Sunday, the quiet, calm Frenchman will be revered by every Southampton for the rest of his life and beyond. Perhaps that’s why he is so reluctant to think about leading the Saints to yet another famous upset in a final at Wembley against Manchester United.

Rodgers excuses Maddison’s behavior after England departure

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Leicester City and England midfielder James Maddison made headlines for the wrong reasons after he was pictured last week watching the England match at the Czech Republic from a casino.

Despite the negative attention from Maddison’s decision to watch the game at that venue, he has the backing of his club manager, Brendan Rodgers.

“The kid went away with the international team and took ill while he was away,” Rodgers said, via the Guardian. “He wanted to stay and hopefully be ready for the second game. But the England medical staff – which I can understand, as he had flu and they didn’t want that to spread to his teammates – decided it’s best for him to leave the camp. So he leaves, gets some tablets with our guys at the club, then he feels better.

“He watched the game at home on his own on the Friday and then goes out at half-time – probably he’ll make better decisions in his life but he went to a casino on his own to sit and watch the second half by a poker table. The suggestions are he left England purposelessly and then goes to a casino but that’s totally not the case at all. But his eyes have been opened now to the wider world in terms of what he did. He knows in hindsight he’s made a mistake.”

Considering all that went on during England’s international break, from the poor performance in Prague to the horrible racism endured in Bulgaria, this is a bit of a silly scandal. To be honest, as long as Maddison is taking care of his body and himself, why does it matter if he was at a casino, or a pub, or anywhere?

However, there’s no denying that the optics look bad. Folks didn’t know that he arrived to England camp with the flu, or a flu-like illness at least, and the England medical staff are right to send him away to make sure no one else gets sick. He may have been feeling better by Friday and wanted to get out of the house. I think we’ve all been there after being sick for a few days.

The most important lesson for Maddison is to learn that his actions, out of context, can be misunderstood. In terms of soccer, after Ross Barkley’s performance for England, Maddison will have to prove in his club form that he should still have a place in the England team for the near future. There’s only two more international dates left before the 2020 Euros, so time is running out for Maddison to make an impact to Southgate.

 

Tierney, Lacazette available for Arsenal

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Arsenal are edging closer to finally having a full-strength squad.

Ahead of Monday’s prime-time matchup with Sheffield United, Arsenal manager Unai Emery confirmed that Kieran Tierney was in line to make his Premier League debut, while Alexandre Lacazette was back in full training and should be in the gameday squad.

“Today is Lacazette’s first training back with us,” Emery said in a press conference on Thursday. “He finished it well and he’s feeling well with his injuries. Tomorrow we will be training again and he will be with us. We will decide.

“The most important thing is that first he is training, then secondly it’s whether he can be with us and it depends how he can feel in the next days training with us, whether his ankle is not giving him any more problems.”

This is a huge boost to Arsenal, which has had to rely on some youngsters and have made some lineup changes to accommodate not having Lacazette on the field. Tierney meanwhile could step into a position where there’s already a decent starter, Sead Kolasinac.

Lacazette’s return also couldn’t have come at a better time. In Premier League action, Arsenal’s high-powered offense has been stymied, scoring just two goals in the last two league games. Meanwhile, against weaker defenses in the UEFA Europa League and the Carabao Cup, Arsenal has bagged a total of 12 goals.

The veteran Frenchman has scored two goals in three appearances so far this season, including a big goal just before halftime in the 2-2 draw with Tottenham. However, he suffered a long-term ankle injury in that match that has kept him on the sidelines for more than a month.

“[Tierney is] ready to play,” Emery later said. Now we have two options in that left-back role with Sead Kolasinac and him. We’re going to play a lot of matches after Monday. We will need every player. It depends how he comes into the first training with us, Sead, after his international matches. We now have two players in that position and we can use one on Monday, it depends how they are, one or the other.”

Tierney, the 22-year-old Scottish left back, has made two appearances for the Arsenal first team since recovering from a double hernia operation over the summer. Signed from Celtic for around $32 million, Tierney adds a skill that Kolasinac has struggled with – expert crosser of the ball into the box, where the likes of Lacazette, Nicolas Pepe, and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang can score when given a decent chance.

USWNT star Rapinoe, boxer Shields win sportswomen of year

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Soccer star Megan Rapinoe and boxer Claressa Shields have been honored as Sportswomen of the Year by the Women’s Sports Foundation.

They won in the team and individual categories, the awards coming at the foundation’s 40th annual Salute to Women in Sports.

Rapinoe led the U.S. to victory at the World Cup in France and earned the FIFA Player of the Year award. Shields is a two-time Olympic gold medalist and middleweight champion.

Sheila Johnson, part-owner of the Washington Wizards, Capitals and recent WNBA champion Mystics, won the Billie Jean King Leadership Award. Marta Vieira da Silva, star of the Brazilian national soccer team, won the Wilma Rudolph Courage Award.

Rapinoe thanked her teammates Wednesday night and lauded Marta, a six-time FIFA Player of the Year, calling the Brazilian the greatest of all time and an “absolute hero in our sport.”

John Burke, president of the Trek Bicycle company, received the inaugural Champion for Equality Award.

MNUFC’s Opara wins MLS Defender of the Year

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For the second time in three seasons, Ike Opara has been named MLS Defender of the Year, this time as the foundational piece of Minnesota United’s much-improved defense.

[ Report: Sacramento finally gets MLS expansion franchise ]

Opara becomes just the fourth player to win multiple Defender of the Year awards, joining Carlos Bocanegra (2002, 2003), Robin Fraser (1999, 2004) and Chad Marshall, the only three-time winner (2008, 2009, 2014) in MLS history. Opara won the award going away, nearly doubling the percentage of votes received by second-place Walker Zimmerman.

Defender of the Year Player % Club % Media % Final %
Ike Opara  25.75% 27.27% 44.88% 32.64%
Walker Zimmerman 20.40% 17.17% 12.20% 16.59%
Miles Robinson 19.40% 13.13% 15.75% 16.09%
Maxime Chanot 1.67% 16.16% 4.33% 7.39%
Eddie Segura 4.35% 9.09% 5.91% 6.45%
Aaron Long 2.34% 5.05% 1.97% 3.12%

[ MORE: Berhalter slams USMNT after Canada defeat — what now? ]

This time last year, the 30-year-old was a member of one of the league’s stingiest defensive units as a member of Sporting Kansas City. Following a contract dispute with Sporting, Opara was traded to Minnesota in exchange for $900,000 of targeted allocation money, plus an additional $100,000 after Minnesota qualified for the playoffs for the first time since joining MLS.