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Oriol Romeu: The perfectly poised destroyer

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SOUTHAMPTON — A two-hour drive on a straight highway along the coast of Catalonia in Spain, the road from Ulldecona to Barcelona is not as easy to navigate as you might think.

Ask Southampton’s star performer this season, Oriol Romeu.

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Currently reaching levels he admits he wasn’t sure he could ever reach, the 25-year-old midfielder is nailed on to be named Saints’ player of the season and as he prepares to head back to his former club Chelsea on Tuesday (Watch live, 2:45 p.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com) the combative Catalan has been reflecting on his journey to the Premier League.

Speaking exclusively to Pro Soccer Talk on a sunny day on England’s South Coast, it was another coastal route which Romeu and his family got extremely used to navigating in his days with Espanyol as a youngster.

“It’s 200 kilometers from Barcelona, so quite far,” Romeu said of his hometown, Ulldecona. “It was a bit tough in the beginning because I had to travel a lot and my parents were a bit scared to spend too long on the road. When I was 12 I decided I wanted to go back home and wanted to stop playing football at a big level. Suddenly Barcelona came and said ‘we like you, we want you to be here and we don’t won’t you to go away’ and I said ‘okay, I will accept’ because obviously I love Barcelona and that was a chance I had to take. It went well. It went very well and I was very lucky to develop since the first day and I could become a good player. It was tough because I was too far away from home and I had to travel a lot. It wasn’t easy but I could make it.”

And make it he has.

Given Romeu’s steady ascent over the past 12 months where he first shadowed Victor Wanyama, Saints’ chief midfield destroyer at the time, and then shone at the back-end of last season, we’ve had a chat penciled in many times over recent months but due to his schedule or mine it has never quite worked out. Yet now, ahead of Romeu’s return to Chelsea, it seemed like the perfect time to discuss his rise at Southampton in the midst of the finest season in his career so far.

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“Finally, we can meet!” Romeu says, smiling as he walks through the door at Southampton’s training base at Staplewood. Sporting tattoos on the inside of his arms, Romeu places his wash bag and a light jacket down on the table as we catch up and discuss his plans for the afternoon.

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He explains that his dogs will be waiting by the door for him when he gets home and then he’ll set off on a long evening walk across one of the many stunning vistas within close proximity to his home in southern England. It gives him a chance to relax and switch off, he explains, as his life off the pitch is far from what you would expect for a powerful central midfielder who used to showcase a mean Mohawk hairdo.

Calm, collected and poised as he juggles a bottle of water while we talk, Romeu has had a long and winding journey to become a regular in the Premier League.

That journey has taken him to three countries, six clubs and the hugely likable Romeu seems to know so many people in the game. After Saints’ preseason friendly with Espanyol he was holding court with coaches and players in the tunnel area and the likes of Juan Mata and Fernando Torres are close friends, while following a recent home defeat to Manchester City his former boss Pep Guardiola spent several minutes speaking with him outside the locker rooms at St Mary’s.

Romeu made his way through the famed La Masia academy after deciding to stick it out in Barcelona after those tough early years and played under Guardiola for the team he grew up supporting. In his hometown of Ulldecona he idolized Brazilian legend Ronaldo and was a true Barca fan.

“My parents always say that I was a bit mad for Ronaldo” Romeu smiles. He even played up front in his early days as he looked to emulate Ronaldo yet Romeu sheepishly admits that scoring goals quickly became an afterthought in his game.

A move to Chelsea in 2011 saw Romeu’s career take a huge step forward as he played regularly under Andre Villas-Boas but with injuries hampering his progress at Stamford Bridge and after two loan moves to Valencia and Stuttgart, it’s at Southampton where he’s found his feet. Big time. A true fans favorite at St Mary’s in just his second season at Saints, Romeu is both the midfield organizer and destroyer.

His brute force is backed up by a growing intelligence to read the game and time interceptions to perfection. He has made the third-highest amount of tackles for midfielders in the Premier League, behind only Idrissa Gueye and N'Golo Kante, and also ranks sixth in the PL for most interceptions by a midfielder.

Romeu was rewarded for his fine displays by signing a new long-term contract in January, on the eve of what he calls his favorite moment in his career so far. He put in a man of the match display as Southampton beat Liverpool at Anfield to secure a place in the EFL Cup final at Wembley.

“The favorite moment of my career was that semifinal at Anfield when we beat Liverpool away. That was my happiest day as a footballer,” Romeu smiled, again. “We played amazing football and we got to a final and along with the fans we were all there enjoying and playing against a top side like Liverpool. That’s the top moment. When Longy [Shane Long] scored, we all went mad! Fighting for that final, it was so close and if they scored it would be going to extra time. So when he scored it was one of the happiest moments of my career, no doubt.”

This season there’s no doubt it has been the best of his career and Romeu credits this to his growing confidence as he plays week in, week out in Southampton’s midfield. He’s been named Southampton’s Player of the Month on three occasions by the fans as he led their charge to a heroic EFL Cup final defeat, plus a historic campaign which saw them go within one goal of reaching the knockout stages of the UEFA Europa League after Romeu dominated Inter Milan in a famous win at St Mary’s.

Even after losing to Man United in the EFL Cup final, just when Saints seemed to be destined to win their first major trophy in over 40 years, Romeu chooses to take the positives from that experience.

“We hope that we can play at Wembley many times,” Romeu said. “It was a day that straight after we didn’t have a good feeling. But looking back now after a couple of months, it was a day to remember. We all had a very, very good feeling playing in that stadium. There was an amazing connection with our fans and since that day we have started to play better football and the fans started to realize we are trying to do our best. We didn’t win, we didn’t get the title we wanted, but there are so many positives to take.”

In the aftermath of that defeat, Romeu was inconsolable on the Wembley pitch as tears poured down his face as he wore the captain’s armband.

He and his teammates had given everything and with the score locked at 2-2 in the 62nd minute, he beat Paul Pogba to a header from a corner but the ball hit the post and was cleared. If Romeu’s header had gone in, there would not have been a more fitting scorer of a cup-winning goal for Southampton, especially at the exact same time as Saints’ fans were also lighting up their end of Wembley with a tribute to their savior and former owner Markus Liebherr who passed away at the age of 62.

Romeu’s song is sung with gusto each and every game by Southampton’s fans and the Catalan admitted he’s never received that kind of adulation anywhere else in his career.

When Romeu steps out onto the pitch against his old club Chelsea on Tuesday — he is once again available after a two-game ban for picking up 10 yellow cards this season — he’s no longer a kid from Catalan among Chelsea’s superstar squad. He’s a beast from Ullcedona who is capable of dominating their midfield.

Romeu credited current Saints boss Claude Puel (who was also a midfield destroyer in his playing days) with improving his game since he arrived last summer as he made the Spaniard a key part of his team.

“He is always trying to help me with the structure of the team. As a midfielder you always have players around yourself. If I can help the team to get tactically ready, it helps the team a lot,” Romeu explained. “We know in this league that sometimes the team gets unorganized and everyone is out of their place. Basically, in me he wants to have someone who makes sure everyone is back in their place and the team is ready to go again. Apart from having that faith in me and playing me in so many games, he is always trying to teach me in different parts of my game.”

Puel has recently compared Romeu to another Frenchman as his talents start to become widely appreciated alongside a growing number of holding midfielders in the Premier League who are garnering added respect. The likes of Kante at Chelsea, Gueye at Everton, Ander Herrera at Manchester United and Wanyama at Tottenham have all become integral for their respective teams.

It is said that in the summer of 2015 Leicester City had two options (former boss Claudio Ranieri also mentioned Jordy Claise, who signed for Southampton too, was in the conversation) when looking to buy a new holding midfielder: Kante or Romeu.

Kante went to Leicester and Romeu went to Southampton and both proved to be fine signings. Romeu admitted that when Saints signed him in 2015 he was not at the best moment in his career and was struggling after a loan spell at Stuttgart. He has more than repaid the faith Saints showed in him to help him rebuild his career.

Both Kane and Romeu will do battle in the center of midfield at Stamford Bridge on Tuesday and with Kante named the PFA Player of the Year on Sunday for his fine destructive displays in midfield, Romeu’s manager believes his midfield destroyer is close to Kante’s level.

“N’Golo Kante brings the same qualities as Oriol Romeu for us. Without Kante it is difficult for Chelsea. Without Romeu it is difficult for us. For me, Oriol is not far off Kante,” Puel explained. “He is very consistent. Every game he gives a good performance and is strong on the recovery of the ball. He has a lot of qualities to also start on the ball and for me, he is at the same level. He’s a great player for me. But for the moment we cannot play for the first place of the table and he is not on the TV, but we will see for the future. For me he can go also to the selection with Spain for example.”

Representing Spain is also at the forefront of Romeu’s mind as a former coach of his at national team youth levels was Julen Lopetegui, the current head coach of the Spanish national team.

“As a footballer it is one of your dreams,” Romeu said. “When you are younger you see the national team playing and you say ‘oh, hopefully one day’ but it seems so far away. Now, honestly, I am feeling very good and the coach from the national team has been training with me in the U-23s. He knows the way I am and if he wants me to go there, I feel like I am ready to go. We will see what happens.”

A thoughtful individual who can often be found reading books in his spare time, beating everyone at table-tennis and even darts in the team lounge, Romeu allowed his mind to wander back to when he first arrived in England at Chelsea almost six years ago. Things were very different.

He admitted that he’s even surprised himself at how far he’s come since then.

“I see myself playing matches a few years ago and now I try different things and do different things, I’ve tried to learn to obviously get better and to be one step ahead. This year while I’m playing, I’m even discovering new things about myself because I’m playing on a level that I probably wasn’t expecting before,” Romeu smiled. “Before, I wasn’t feeling that I could do the things that I am doing now. It’s time to see how far I can go. I just want to keep going and see how long it will last. I’m feeling good.”

Romeu’s club and his teammates are in a very similar position.

Each and every season Southampton have been written off after selling on key names – Wanyama, Sadio Mane and Graziano Pelle were the latest to exit last summer – but somehow they dig deep to grind out more from each player and secure a top 10 finish. This season, with new manager Puel at the helm, Saints are on course for their fourth-straight top 10 finish in the Premier League after competing in the Europa League and reaching a major cup final.

Puel has hailed Romeu’s importance to Southampton’s future.

“He learned with Barcelona and we can see this. He feels the play and feels the game with passes disguised and quality on the pitch,” Puel said. “He is very important in our start of the play. I like this.”

What’s the next step for Saints and Romeu? To challenge for a UEFA Champions League spot?

Romeu hopes that is achievable in the next “three or four years” at Southampton.

“That would be the main target. Definitely. That would be something so nice,” Romeu said, puffing out his cheeks. “There are teams, even top teams this year, that are struggling to get there. You need to be very, very consistent and have a very, very strong team. We will see if we can get that. Looking at our team now, if all the players injured were okay and if everyone playing is in his best moment, we will have a very strong side. Hopefully we can keep building into this structure that we have in this team and can get even better next year.”

Although there’s still a tinge of disappointment at Southampton that they couldn’t get past Manchester United at Wembley to seal Europa League action for a third-straight season, Romeu believes the potential to not have European games next season could be a blessing in disguise. He’s a man who knows all about European action after being part of the Chelsea’s squads which won both the UEFA Europa League and the UEFA Champions League.

“We are seeing recently that the teams that are not playing in Europe, they feel better in the league and get in better positions at the end of the season. Last year with Leicester and this year with Chelsea,” Romeu said. “So we need to take that part of next year as something good, not something negative.”

Always positive after coming through plenty of testing times at home and abroad, Romeu is far from the end of his journey.

Southampton is certainly glad a young midfielder decided to keep making those trips from one side of Catalonia to the other nearly 15 years ago.

Ahead of his return to PL leaders Chelsea he is, as ever, reflective about his days at Stamford Bridge as a youngster. Perhaps the biggest compliment which can be paid to him is that Chelsea fans often flood social media feeds discussing Romeu’s displays with comments such as ‘why did you leave Chelsea?’ and ‘come back to Chelsea, Oriol.’

“It was probably a learning period of time. I was very young and I was sharing a dressing room with amazing players, idols for me then and now. I could learn a lot from them, the way they approached games and trained on a daily basis. It was a very good period. I was very happy to be there [at Chelsea]. To go back there it is nice and it will be good to play against some players I have a good relationship with and I get on with very well. It is always nice to go back there and play against them… and hopefully beat them!” Romeu laughed. “I think Chelsea have done amazingly and they are in the best position. They cannot relax. This league does not allow you to bring your level down one step.”

Romeu has taken his level up several steps and he shows no signs of stopping that climb now.

VIDEO: Martial scores for Man United v. Club Brugge

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Anthony Martial scored once again for Man United and his goal in the Europa League Round of 32 first leg against Club Brugge was a beauty.

The Frenchman is standing tall in the absence of Marcus Rashford through injury as he has now scored in back-to-back games away from home.

Martial, 24, made the most of a slight defensive mistake from Club Brugge as he powered towards goal and kept his cool to slot home, while he also hit the post in the first half after Simon Mignolet got a slight touch on his curling effort.

When he’s on form he’s a joy to watch and after his towering header against Chelsea on Monday, Martial has done it again a few days later in Belgium. It is the third time this season he has scored in back-to-back games and he has now scored 14 goals in 30 appearances for the Red Devils, his best return since he scored 17 in his opening season at United in 2015-16.

Here is Martial’s goal at Club Brugge, as United need him to kick on and take this tally for the season to at least 20 goals if they are going to be successful.

LIVE, Europa League: Arsenal, Man United, Wolves in action

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The knockout rounds of the 2019-20 UEFA Europa League campaign is here and three Premier League teams are in action on Thursday.

Everything is set up for an epic day of first legs in the Round of 32.

[ LIVE: Europa League scores  ]

Arsenal travel to Olympiakos who dropped down from the Champions League, while Wolves host La Liga strugglers Espanyol and Man United travel to Club Brugge who exited the UCL at the group stage after some impressive displays.

With a Champions League spot for next season up for grabs for the Europa League winners, there is always a little extra spice in this tournament from here on out, especially as plenty of giants have dropped out of the Champions League and joined the Europa League for the Round of 32.

Glasgow Celtic and Rangers both face tricky tests as Steven Gerrard‘s side face Braga and Neil Lennon’s Celtic head to Copenhagen.

Elsewhere there are plenty of mouthwatering ties at Jesse Marsch’s RB Salzburg drop into the Europa League and travel to Eintracht Frankfurt. Antonio Conte‘s Inter Milan head to Ludogorets, while Ajax travel to Getafe after narrowly missing out on reaching the Champions League last 16.

Below is the schedule in full for Thursday’s games, while you can click on the link above to follow all the action as it happens.


Full Europa League schedule

12:55 p.m. ET
Club Brugge v. Manchester United
Ludogorets v. Inter Milan
Copenhagen v. Celtic
Eintracht Frankfurt v. RB Salzburg
CFR Cluj v. Sevilla
Sporting Lisbon v. Istanbul Basaksehir
Shakhtar Donetsk v. Benfica
Getafe v. Ajax

3 p.m. ET
Rangers v. Braga
Wolves v. Espanyol
Olympiacos v. Arsenal
Bayer Leverkusen v. FC Porto
AZ Alkmaar v. LASK
Roma v. Gent
APOEL Nicosia v. FC Basel
Wolfsburg v. Malmo

VIDEO: Henry’s Montreal debut ends with dramatic collapse

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Thierry Henry’s first game in charge of the Montreal Impact started well but ended in a dramatic collapse. The legendary Frenchman probably has CCL fever right about now.

[ MORE: All of PST’s MLS coverage

Montreal drew 2-2 at Deportivo Saprissa in the first leg of their CONCACAF Champions League last 16 game on Wednesday as Orji Okwonkwo and Romell Quioto put them 2-0 up inside the first 22 minutes but Saprissa struck twice in the final 10 minutes to draw level. Both of Montreal’s goalscorers went off injured and after a tough preseason a late collapse

Johan Venegas pulled one back for the Costa Rican side in the 80th minute and Ariel Rodriguez equalized in the 90th minute to set up an intriguing second leg at the Olympic Stadium next Wednesday as the winner will face the Seattle Sounders or C.D. Olimpia in the quarterfinals.

Henry’s first official game in charge of the Major League Soccer franchise will have taught him a lot about his team and in truth they were pretty lucky to grab a draw as Saprissa outshot them 22-7 and had 72 percent of the possession.

Via MLSsoccer.com, the Arsenal and France legend was happy with the spirit his young side showed after a tough offseason which saw them lose four of their five preseason games amid plenty of turnover in the squad.

“We tried to compete, it was always going to be a difficult second half, but overall, I cannot say anything to my team,” Henry said. “Obviously there are some things that we need to work on, on how we conceded the goals, but you could see how it was difficult at times to cover each other. But at the end of the day, as a coach, when you see your team fighting like that up until the end you can only be proud. Obviously there’s some stuff that we can work on, don’t get it twisted, but I have to be proud about how they played. Especially how we arrived there in the situation that we are in.”

Going away to Costa Rica to play an experience team like Saprissa was never going to be easy and Henry’s side are at least level for the return game but Montreal’s squad is looking pretty young and replacing the creativity and goals of Ignacio Piatti is going to be tough.

Check out the highlights of the dramatic Saprissa comeback in the video above.

Premier League player Power Rankings

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Our latest Premier League player Power Rankings are here and there are some familiar faces sticking around the upper echelons.

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Stars from Premier League giants Liverpool, Man United, Arsenal and Tottenham dominate our power rankings after some impressive performances and there are plenty of new entries and plenty of players from the same teams as these rankings are based on the seven games played over the last seven days due to the second half of the Premier League’s winter break kicking in.

[ MORE: Club Power Rankings

Remember: this is a list of the top 20 performing players right now in the Premier League. If they didn’t play in the last matchweek, they aren’t getting in this list!

Let us know in the comments section below if you agree with the selections.


1. Heung-Min Son (Tottenham) – Up 2
2. Virgil Van Dijk (Liverpool) – Up 2
3. Jordan Henderson (Liverpool) – Up 2
4. Dani Ceballos (Arsenal) – New entry
5. Bukayo Saka (Arsenal) – New entry
6. Aaron Wan-Bissaka (Man United) – New entry
7. Richarlison (Everton) – Up 8
8. Harry Maguire (Man United) – New entry
9. Jack Grealish (Aston Villa) – New entry
10. Sadio Mane (Liverpool) – New entry
11. Kevin De Bruyne (Man City) – New entry
12. Roberto Firmino (Liverpool) –  Down 11
13. Nicolas Pepe (Arsenal) – New entry
14. Mohamed Salah (Liverpool) – Down 3
15. Hugo Lloris (Tottenham) – Down 7
16. Bruno Fernandes (Man United) – New entry
17. Nick Pope (Burnley) – Even
18. Steven Bergwijn (Tottenham) – Down 5
19. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang (Arsenal) – New entry
20. Pepe Reina (Aston Villa) – New entry