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Ralph Krueger on Southampton taking the next step

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Southampton’s chairman Ralph Krueger is ready to do whatever it takes to take his club to the next step.

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That includes holding on to their top talent, searching for significant new investment and striving to take the “Southampton Way” to each corner of the globe.

ProSoccerTalk spoke exclusively to Krueger ahead of Saints’ final two games of the season, the first of which is at home against Manchester United on Wednesday (Watch live, 2:45 p.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com), and the former NHL coach was eager to point out that the club does not have to sell any players this summer.

After the likes of Adam Lallana, Luke Shaw, Sadio Mane and others moved on in recent summers, Virgil Van Dijk has been linked with a $65 million transfer to Manchester City, Chelsea, Arsenal and Liverpool. The Dutch international defender only signed a new six-year deal last summer and Southampton has no plans to sell their team captain despite daily reports suggesting he is on his way.

“I don’t get frustrated by those kind of reports. There might be some disrespect in those reports,” Krueger explained. “To take you back to the 2013-14 season when this present management team started changing the way the club was being operated, the team had come up very, very quickly. Everything was done up until that date very well but there was only a maximum of 15 high-level Premier League players in the team. We ended up in three summers worth of transfer markets, where we needed to net in players where we needed in increase our depth charts. I think that phase of the club ended last summer.

“We would sell five, buy eight. Sell six, buy nine and so on all the way through those three years. We had made a commitment to ownership to live within our means, which we have been doing. Now, we have every position doubled up and we have at least 25 players. More important than anything we have 18 players on contract with three years or more. In that first season, one of the weaknesses of the club was how short all of the contracts were. There was just a handful of players locked in beyond two years. Now we have 18 players locked in. We have 12 players actually with 49 months or more and two with 61 months.”

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights

Krueger explained clearly that Southampton do not need to sell Van Dijk, or anyone else, this summer.

“We do not need to sell a player this summer,” Krueger said. “Any transfer in and out now will be to increase the quality of the squad and do what is best for the club. I have to tell you, straight up, we do not have to sell anybody. We will do our best to retain the core, solidify the core and move with some synergy into next season.”

Assessing their season so far, Krueger was asked if he believed Saints have almost become a victim of their own success after finishing sixth and seventh in each of the past two seasons, qualifying for Europe on both occasions and handling key exits admirably.

[ MORE: Saints’ fans take over Milan, San Siro ]

Some fans are frustrated with the brand of play under new manager Claude Puel and inconsistent displays, despite reaching a first major final since 2003 and coming within one goal of making the Europa League knockout stages.

Still, Saints can finish in eighth place in the PL this season which would be their fourth-straight campaign of finishing in the top eight of the PL. They’ve only been back in the top-flight for five seasons, so has the fact that the club established themselves as a top half of the table team so quickly hurt them?

Krueger welcomes the criticism from fans and pointed to the fact that this is a young team — Saints’ starting lineup has the second youngest average age in the PL — which will improve.

“We are probably a victim of our own hunger to always continually evolve and grow. I think what our fans have shown is okay and as chairman I actually see that as a hunger that stops us from being complacent and actually pushes us forward,” Krueger said. “It is fine. It is part of the natural evolution of a winning team. So you go from 8th to 7th to 6th and the 8th place three years ago was a celebration and a huge party and here we are having a chance of eighth or ninth at the end of the season and fans may say that’s not enough. It shows that we are now an established Premier League team with a fanbase that wants to see that.

“Overall, the EFL Cup final was an amazing experience, being in Wembley with our fans who were absolute world champions on that day with the love for the club you could feel through that stadium. The performance of the team, it was disappointing with the loss, but it was still encouraging as to what is possible on a given day with our team. Europe, we would have liked to have seen that gone on a little further but it didn’t, and the Premier League if we do finish in single digits we have to say it’s another good year for Southampton. We feel that it was a year of development and growth of our young squad and there is so much excitement going into 2017-18 that we are ready to go at it on May 22 already. We want to start the process. Overall it was another fascinating year of growth for our club.”

With plenty of speculation regarding manager Claude Puel and him potentially being fired at the end of this season, his first-ever in England, Krueger refused to talk about whether the Frenchman will be shown the exit door at St Mary’s.

“With the importance of these two final home games in five days, we leave it to the football people at the club. My past is hockey. My job here is to lead the club on a cultural and political level and be the connection and representative of ownership, so I leave the football side to do that,” Krueger said. “Next week, like every year, they will do a complete debrief and they decompose the whole season and look at it from every angle. They will be very transparent in how we need to move forward. I trust the people we have there, with Les Reed and Ross Wilson we have really good people at the lead.

“Claude has been a part of everything that has happened this year. It is really going to be the players or however else, it is up to football to give us the final grade and then we will see how we go forward.”

When it comes to pushing forward, Krueger confirmed that talks have been ongoing regarding potential investment in the club as Chinese investment group Lander Sports has been in talks with regards to providing extra funds to help current owner Katharina Liebherr (her later father, Markus, saved Southampton from extinction in the third-tier in 2008) take the club to the next level.

Talks about new investment remains ongoing, and will continue to do so, but Krueger confirmed that any investment will only happen if certain conditions are met.

Katharina did release a statement in January and that hasn’t changed in so far as we’ve been multiple months now into a process of looking into potential investment under a few clear parameters,” Krueger explained. “One of them is that Katharina stays involved and the other one is that the investor definitely brings in the qualities that will help us get to another level and that will empower the club. Even though the process was initially new, we have become extremely comfortable that we’ve set up our strategy and we are finalizing now and will be done at the beginning of next week, that strategy is not connected to potential investment or not.

“With the status quo, Katharina staying and us not finding the proper partner to move forward, or the same way as if a partner entered. The only way the partner will enter here is with the acceptance of our present culture, with the management team staying intact and continually moving on the strategy we are on and the culture we have. That is a given and a guaranteed step going forward.

“It could happen and long term if it does happen it will give us growth and if doesn’t happen in the next few months we are going to continue with that process. It is just part of the maturing of the club and strengthening of the club. It is normal. In North America it is a normal business development that happens within the club structure and here the fans are just getting used to this process. We feel really strongly positioned going forward right now.”

Such is his belief in Saints’ project, Krueger revealed that he turned down two jobs in the NHL over the postseason as the man who led Team Europe to an unlikely World Cup of Hockey final in September 2016 against Canada still believes there is plenty left for Saints to achieve under his leadership.

“It was nice and honorable that I was offered two NHL jobs post-season and I was happy they didn’t forget about me but I turned them down,” Krueger said. “It just feels like we’ve only just got started here and especially with the management re-organization we just did, there is kind of like there’s something here where we are going to take it to another level.

“I still love the game and I have lots of friends still in the playoffs, I am keeping a close eye on them. My son is playing at the World Ice Hockey Championships for Germany right now in Germany and all of that… but it is Southampton. At the moment this is doing it. I don’t think you ever close the door on anything in your life but I love being here.”

Krueger confirmed that Saints will not be going on a tour of the U.S. anytime soon (the squad went on a brief trip to Baltimore last summer to visit their partners Under Armour) but they continue their growth in the U.S. with the ‘Southampton Cup’ youth tournament being set up in December in Baltimore and he admitted their image overseas is changing all the time.

“We are continuing to develop our teaching arm of the club and we have multiple clubs and development academies we are partnering with in the U.S. and we are looking at some in Canada,” Krueger said. “It is the teaching arm of the club which can help our growth worldwide at the moment. Until we get some trophies in our cabinet, on a worldwide basis we have respect for the ability to develop players and teach the game.

“We are also looking at opportunities in Africa, India and China. Our growth in the U.S. with the ‘Southampton Cup’ here in and then in December in Baltimore with over 100 clubs competing, those kind of platforms are what we are all about. We are an authentic brand living within our means and building in a small market, kind of like the Green Bay Packers environment. That gives us a romance.

“I was just speaking to someone the other day and our name, Southampton, being in the top half of the table for over four years, where only six teams have been, it is something that is helping our brand grow and evolve around the world. You can feel it changing. There is a shift in the last 12 months to the respect that we get when we go outside the country. It is nice but now we would like to, on the pitch, push back into Europe next season and we think if we can keep our team together we have a good shot at doing that.”

Krueger also confirmed that Saints’ “next dream is some face-lifting and upgrading” of St Mary’s and that the size of the stadium will remain the same for the time being, while he also lauded their commercial growth.

“The partnerships with Under Armour, Virgin Media, SportPesa, the international side of it, I have to say it is very exciting to look at our numbers. We have almost quadrupled our commercial revenue here in the last four years,” Krueger said. “That should continue to accelerate, what is interesting is that through this teaching arm in the we are going to build some commercial partnerships too which will help our final product on the pitch of course.”

Everything at Southampton, from the youth development, commercial growth and potential investment in the club seems to be incredibly healthy.

Now, as Krueger said, the most important thing is the product on the pitch. When the PL season finishes on May 21, everyone at Saints will already be preparing for next season. That means navigating yet another summer of speculation and figuring out how they can continue to punch above their weight.

“We are driving all of our different departments forward and on May 22, I swear, it is right back at it,” Krueger laughed. “With the teams that are coming up from the Championship it is going to be extremely competitive again next year. Nobody is going to give us any points anywhere and we have to add five percent everywhere just to keep the status quo. So to go beyond that we have to add 10 percent.

“It’s wherever I can help… but it seems like something new pops up every week that you don’t expect! That’s the nature of the Premier League and especially summer transfers windows which are always exciting but we’d like to be a little bit of the sideshow this year instead of a main stage. We are ready for everything and we are strongly positioned for this one.”

Manchester United’s Solskjaer: Pogba not heading to Real Madrid

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Before Manchester United fires off a shot against West Ham on Sunday, its manager has taken aim at Real Madrid.

The Spanish giants are again said to be aiming to bring Paul Pogba to La Liga this winter as the race to win Spain’s top flight appears to be wide open as Lionel Messi battles fitness and newly-promoted Granada is the surprise table topper.

[ MORE: Man City hammers Watford ]

But Ole Gunnar Solskjaer issued a firm hands-off to Perez.

“I am not worried now and I will never be worried in the future about Paul Pogba staying here,” Solskjaer said. “If it all kicks off against with Madrid in January then there will be no worries then either. If we have to live with the speculation again then we will handle it like we did in the summer. Paul is going nowhere. He is happy here when he’s playing.”

So far, Pogba has been a decent soldier despite his mentions of interest in a change of scenery. The 26-year-old’s contract runs through 2020-21, so if a move happens it may well come in January.

That said, United hasn’t played exceptionally bad this season and is a converted penalty or two away from being the closest club to Liverpool on the table (though surely a few teams would make similar claims). Pogba has a pair of an assists in four matches and his absence was notable in the 1-0 win over Leicester City last weekend.

If the Red Devils can manage a good place in the table and run of form against the top teams, perhaps Pogba will ink a longer term deal with United. He’s obviously valued by Ed Woodward. And United fans who hope to keep him in town will also monitor the down times at Real Madrid under Pogba’s seemingly preferred manager Zinedine Zidane. Because Pogba moving to a club where Jose Mourinho is just a few bad matches away doesn’t seem ideal.

On the other hand, few teams can offer the combination of money and assets of Real should United decide to load up for an extended run in Europa League and the top four, and Real’s players will not be Cup-tied due to their status in the Champions League.

PL Sunday preview: Man Utd and Arsenal chase top five; Chelsea host Liverpool

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Sunday’s slate of Premier League fixtures is filled up to the brim of top-six sides in action, as Manchester United and Arsenal look to climb into the top five in the table, while Chelsea looks to send a strong message as they host leaders Liverpool.

[ STREAM: Every PL match live ]

West Ham vs. Manchester United — 9:00 a.m. ET, on NBCSN and NBCSports.com

Aside from leaders Liverpool, there is no other team in the league experiencing such a positive run as West Ham. The Hammers are unbeaten in their last four bouts – wining twice and drawing twice – as they head into Sunday’s showdown against Manchester United. Equal with five other sides with eight points, Manuel Pellegrini is conscious that it’s the ideal time to make a statement and climb into the top six.

“We have a very strong team in front of us, it will be a strong test against United. It is the only way we can get into the top six, demonstrating you are able to do it,” Pellegrini said heading into Sunday.

As for the Red Devils, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer‘s side – who share the podium with West Ham – are looking to extend their current winning form to three games. Ahead of the game, however, the talk surrounding United isn’t Sunday’s game, but Paul Pogba‘s rumored move to Real Madrid this summer. What a better way to get everyone’s mind of theoretical situations and injury worries than with a win.

INJURIES: West Ham — OUT: Michail Antonio (hamstring), Arthur Masuaku (suspended) | Manchester United —OUT: Anthony Martial (thigh), Paul Pogba (back), Luke Shaw (hamstring), Eric Bailly (knee), Timothy Fosu-Mensah (knee)

Crystal Palace vs. Wolverhampton Wanderers — 9 a.m. ET, on NBC Sports Gold

Not many expected it: Wolves winless throughout the first five games of the season. That, however, is the reality for a team that finished seventh last season. By now, Wolverhampton Wanderers have had plenty of time to pick up on the alarm bells, it’s time for them to respond.

Manager Nuno Espírito Santo, for instance, knows that it’s time for his side to get back into shape before it’s too late.

“This is important,” he said. “We face the reality and the reality says we not performing well so we have to analyse it and find solutions in the team to improve. We must react immediately. We have to take decisions and find solutions for the team because we have to come out of this situation and improve our performance so we can bounce back.”

Crystal Palace, on the other hand, are dealing with adversity of their own after falling to Tottenham Hotspur, 4-0, last week. Playing at Selhurst Park this time around should be a positive, but Palace has only managed to score a goal in three matches in front of their home crowd this season.

INJURIES: Crystal Palace — OUT: None | Wolverhampton Wanderers — OUT: None

Arsenal vs. Aston Villa — 11:30 a.m. ET, on NBC Sports Gold

Arsenal have had several things going for them this season: scoring at home, positive first Europa League performance, a healthy and productive Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, among others. One thing they’ve been missing, though, is an effective Nicolas Pepe, especially after shelling record-money for the 24-year-old Ivorian.

“He needs more adaptation,” Emery said in his pre-match press conference. “He is playing good but progressively we know there is going to be more performance in him to help us and I want to do now quickly the last step in the adaptation for us, for example, against Aston Villa.”

With Alexandre Lacazette still out with an ankle injury, Pepe, again, will have the opportunity to showcase his true worth to a packed Emirates Stadium. Arsenal, too, can use his skill to get that much closer to three, vital points.

“When will Aston Villa finally break out of their shell?” is the million-dollar question for the visitors. At times, the newly promoted side has shown the flair that made it so powerful in the Championship last season, only to leave spectators on the edge of their seats, waiting for that final blow. In North London on Sunday, Dean Smith and Co. have the chance to do so with several players back in the mix, but that’s not to say the task will be a walk in the park.

INJURIES: Arsenal — OUT: Alexandre Lacazette (ankle) | Aston Villa — OUT: James Chester (thigh), Jonathan Kodjia (cheek)

Chelsea vs. Liverpool — 11:30 a.m. ET, on NBCSN and NBCSports.com

Liverpool, like Chelsea, suffered opening losses in European play midweek; however, there is a different, more positive impetus fueling Jurgen Klopp‘s side. The defending Champions League winners’ immaculate record speaks volume to their current situation, one that’s biggest setback has been the aforementioned loss to Napoli and the injury to goalkeeper Allison, while regaining influential player Nabi Keita in trainings.

It begs to ask: with Manchester City already behind and several top-six sides struggling, how will Liverpool not runaway with the league title this season? That type of talk, however, is exactly what Klopp doesn’t want to hear. The season is green – very, ver green – and this season, for one reason or another, is nothing like last year’s.

“Nothing is won already,” Klopp said. “We have seen teams make big steps. There is nobody you think will go down with no points. Watford and Wolves have been at the bottom, struggling, but will end up going back up. The league is much different (to last season). So many things can happen. Five games is nothing, not even created a basis…”

Klopp’s counterpart on Sunday, Frank Lampard, as a result of his own environment, is managing a different dialogue ahead of the clash, like the possibility of fielding Mason Mount, who came off midweek against Valencia in Champions League play.

On the bright side, Chelsea are unbeaten in their last four league bouts, and have a game against Liverpool under their belts this season already – a penalty-shootout loss in the UEFA Super Cup – that should have seasoned them ahead of this season’s part two of the rivalry.

“Times have changed slightly, but it doesn’t change that feeling,” Lampard said on the Chelsea-Liverpool rivalry. “I think the fans feel it, the players feel it, it does involve a lot of passion whenever it’s played. If your levels aren’t there it’s a game that can get away from you quickly so my first thing to say to the players is to make sure they feel this game, recognise what it is, because it always does have an edge.”

INJURIES: Chelsea OUT: Antonio Rüdiger (groin), Ruben Loftus-Cheek (achilles), Callum Hudson-Odoi, Reece James (both fitness) | Liverpool  OUT: Alisson (calf), Nathaniel Clyne (knee)

Serie A roundup: Inter win Derby della Madonnina, Juventus edge Verona (video)

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Inter Milan’s rampant run and Juventus’ win headline Saturday’s Serie A action.

[ MORE: Serie A scores, schedule ]

AC Milan 0-2 Inter Milan

The stats books following this season’s first Derby della Madonnina make two things very clear: at the moment, Inter are the best team in Milan and in Serie A.

With four consecutive victories to start the season, Antonio Conte and Co. lead Italy’s top-flight by two points.

 

After nearly being up two goals in the first half, Inter broke deadlock in the 49th minute. From a orchestrated set-piece play, marcelo Brozovic’s strike skimmed the heels of Rafael Leão, deflecting the ball past Gianluigi Donnarumma, and into the back of the net. An offside call was reviewed through VAR, but the goal stood.

In the 78th minute, a short, lofted cross from Nicolò Barella found Romelu Lukaku, who headed the ball into the far post. The Belgian, who arrived from Manchester United during the summer, has scored three goals in four league games.

Dominating time with the ball didn’t do much for AC Milan, whose clearest chance came late in the second half when Theo Hernández’s strike inside the box hit the bar.

Yet to taste a draw or defeat, Inter marches on as they host Lazio next, while AC Milan travel to Turin to take on Torino.

Juventus 2-1 Hellas Verona

In a game that could have gone either way, Juventus, with its star-studded team and all, walked away with three points against 10-man Hellas Verona.

Aaron Ramsey, who made a shock switch to the Old Lady in July following an 11-year spell with Arsenal, scored his first Serie A goal. From distance, in the 31st minute, the 29-year-old’s shot deflected Verona’s Koray Gunter, beating Marco Silvestri and into the goal.
Ramsey’s goal, however, only leveled the score.
Following a missed penalty and second chance, Miguel Veloso scored what can be the goal of the week: a first-time, left-footed volley into the top corner of Gianluigi Buffon’s goal. Verona, who had a couple of clear chances in the second half, were unable to get past Buffon again.
With three points desperately needed to keep pace with Inter Milan, Cristiano Ronaldo came to the rescue. The Portuguese converted from the sport – his first of the season – following a solo run from Juan Cuadrado.

With positive momentum behind them, second-place Juventus travels to Brescia next, while Hellas Verona receive a lackluster Udinese side.

Elsewhere in Serie A

Cagilari 3-1 Genoa

Udinese 0-1 Brescia

VIDEO: Kei Kamara scores superb bicycle kick goal against Sporting KC

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Kei Kamara has scored plenty of goals at Children’s Mercy Park, but none like his bicycle kick goal on Saturday.

The 35-year-old, now in his 16th season, showcased his penchant for scoring right before halftime against his former team. The goal makes 12 for the Colorado Rapids’ forward this season, placing him within the top 10 of the league and two begin his 14-goal season last year.

Overall, Kamara is fifth in the all-time MLS scoring list with 124 goals, second among active players behind San Jose Earthquakes’ Chris Wondolowski.

Enjoy a superb goal from a superb goalscoerer.