Ward-Prowse issues Saints rallying cry

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SOUTHAMPTON — James Ward-Prowse is a living, breathing embodiment of the Southampton Way.

Coming through their famed academy, he has been at the club since the age of eight and has now been a key part of their first team since they were promoted back to the Premier League in 2012-13, as well as going on to become a full England international and being the long-time captain of the Three Lions’ U-21 side.

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But the current Southampton Way could soon include relegation from the Premier League with Saints two points from safety with eight games to go as new manager Mark Hughes prepares for an almighty scrap against the drop.

The first of those pivotal games comes at relegation rivals West Ham this Saturday (Watch live, 10 a.m. ET on CNBC and online via NBCSports.com) with the Hammers just one place and two points above Southampton.

Speaking exclusively to Pro Soccer Talk, Ward-Prowse, 23, knows that this match at the London Stadium falls into the category of a “six-pointer” as Saints are running out of games against direct relegation rivals.

“This is a game that we need to win, for sure,” Ward-Prowse said. “We can’t afford to lose games or draw games because ultimately that’s going to cost us. It may not necessarily be a game of good football or who can play the best football, it is about who can win the game. That doesn’t matter if it’s a scrappy 89th minute goal or a blitzing 4-0 win. We have to win the game and make sure we are solid throughout.”

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Ward-Prowse was speaking at the launch of a Saints exhibition at Southampton’s SeaCity Museum, as a history of the club “We March On: Then and Now” was unveiled as past legends Matt Le Tissier, Mick Channon and others reminisced about the good old times. There was an FA Cup trophy on show and plenty of reminders about Southampton’s remarkable journey back through the leagues as they rose from third-tier of English soccer in a journey which started in 2009, bankrolled by the Libeherr family.

With Saints now securing fourth-straight top eight finishes in the Premier League, plus reaching the League Cup final last season and European action in each of the last two campaigns, Ward-Prowse knows that staying in England’s top-flight is the only thing they can focus on.

However they do it, Saints must stay up.

“It is game by game but we just need to be in the Premier League next season,” Ward-Prowse said. “It doesn’t matter how it comes and we want to play nice football, of course, but we find ourselves in a situation that we are in and we have to reevaluate where we are, where we need to be and what we have to do to get there. We are confident with the manager and the players we have that we can do that.”

As for the new boss, Hughes’ arrival already seems to have had a positive impact on the squad. They beat Wigan Athletic in a FA Cup quarterfinal in his first game in charge and will now play Chelsea in the semi at Wembley next month to try and book a spot in a second major cup final in as many years.

What has been the key message from Hughes so far?

“To be a bit more positive,” Ward-Prowse explained. “For us, we are a good team, and confidence wise over the last few weeks we’ve maybe not been at it but he’s encouraged us to take risks and he has reminded us of the quality that we have got. The training sessions have been intense, they’ve been sharp and there’s been a purpose. It is very exciting looking forward for us.”

With 13 draws this season, the most in the Premier League, Southampton seemed negative and sometimes scared to attack under former manager Mauricio Pellegrino who was replaced with Hughes earlier this month.

Aside from a relegation battle, Ward-Prowse revealed the FA Cup run to the final four has been a welcome distraction for the team.

After losing narrowly to Manchester United in the League Cup final last season, Ward-Prowse, stood close to the only major trophy Southampton have ever won (upsetting United as a second-tier team in the 1976 FA Cup final) is eyeing another trip to a final.

“It is. It gives us something to look forward to. It’s not been a great season so far for us but this gives us a bit of excitement and it is a great distraction. We are all very excited to play our part in what will hopefully be a successful cup run,” Ward-Prowse smiled. “It’s not a game based on three points and it is the magic of the FA Cup. Anything can happen. It’s a game that hopefully we can win to give our fans yet another day out at Wembley. You’ve seen some teams go on great cup runs throughout the years and we can take confidence from last year, the way we applied ourselves in the cup run against Arsenal away and Liverpool away and home particularly, we dominated those games. We can take that going forward.”

But the focus remains fully on staying up. Ward-Prowse, more than most, is well aware of what relegation from the Premier League means and that could perhaps point to his improved form in the opening months of 2018 after a self-confessed slow start to the current campaign.

Ward-Prowse has scored four goals and added two assists since the turn of the year (he hadn’t scored this season before Jan. 6), contributing to more goals than any other Southampton player in that span as he aims to dig them out of the relegation battle they’re in and also has one eye on sneaking into the full England squad for the World Cup this summer.

The local lad has seen how relegation impacts the people in the City of Southampton and those working for the club, and when Ward-Prowse was a youngster in the academy the club went into administration and started the 2009-10 season on -10 points in the third-tier of English soccer.

Back then they almost fell off the face of the earth before the Liebherr family saved Saints and started their journey back to the top-flight. The impact of relegation surely won’t be as drastic this time around, if it happens, but it is unsure how the new Chinese owners of the club, the Gao family, would respond to Southampton suddenly becoming a second-tier club.

Although wary of what relegation would bring, Ward-Prowse revealed his past experiences of struggle at Southampton spur him on to make sure the club doesn’t go through it again.

“You always have to be wary of those sort of things but those feelings spur us on as players to make sure that doesn’t happen,” Ward-Prowse said. “I’ve seen that happen here and I’m even more determined to play my part to make sure that doesn’t happen. The quality of the players we have got should get us out of the trouble we are in… I’ve got a bit  more of an emotional attachment to the club with the journey I’ve been on. I’ve seen the lows and the highs, I am desperate to play my part and I’m sure they [other players] are as well. If we can do that collectively then we will be fine.”

VIDEO: France stars projected onto Arc de Triomphe

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If France’s players had any doubt about the level of import their World Cup title had back home, it was erased when their photos were projected onto one of the most celebrated monuments in the world.

The photos of Hugo Lloris, Paul Pogba, Antoine Griezmann, and company made their way onto the Arc de Triomphe on Sunday, hours after France defeated Croatia 4-2 in the World Cup Final.

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The Arc de Triomphe honors those who died in the French Revolution and early 19th century wars, and sits above France’s Tomb of the Unknown Soldier from World War I.

How humbling must it be for those players to grace such a heavy monument (both in weight and substance).

Dalic: In one day, Croatia went from lucky to unlucky

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Ante Cacic’s Croatia was on pace to miss out on the World Cup.

Zlatko Dalic’s Croatia rallied the troops to second place in their qualifying group, a playoff defeat of Greece, and a run to the World Cup Final.

Pretty decent stuff.

[ MORE: FIFA awards Golden Ball, Golden Glove ]

And surely the 51-year-old will reflect on that, probably even this evening, but he’s more focused on a letdown after Sunday’s 4-2 loss to highly-favored France.

Key to the match was a penalty awarded to France when a partially-obscured Mario Mandzukic handled a ball inside the 18, leading to Antoine Griezmann’s pivotal goal.

The PK was awarded via VAR, and France went up 2-1 en route to a three-goal lead. From the AFP:

“I never comment on referees but in a World Cup final you do not give such a penalty,” said Dalic.

“It in no way diminishes France’s win. We were a bit unlucky. Maybe in the first six games we were favored by luck and today we weren’t.

“I have to congratulate my players. Maybe today we played our best game at these championships. Against such a strong side as France you must not make mistakes. We are a bit sad but we must also be proud of what we’ve done.”

Croatia had two-thirds of the ball and doubled France’s shot attempts, and Dalic isn’t the least bit controversial in wondering whether the match is much different if that penalty goes unawarded by referee Nestor Pitana.

Atlanta comes back to draw 10-man Seattle (video)

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A scrappy if not downright venomous affair between the lowly Seattle Sounders and high-flying Atlanta United ended in a 1-1 draw in Georgia on Sunday.

The Sounders went ahead through a Nicolas Lodeiro penalty kick, awarded via VAR a la this morning’s World Cup Final, but Atlanta leveled the score with a highlight which show every bit of the game story.

[ MORE: FIFA awards Golden Ball, Golden Glove ]

Just check Josef Martinez’s barking at Stefan Frei, who made an uncharacteristic error on the play, after his 19th goal of the season (Nice cross, Julian Gressel).

Martinez needs nine more goals to break the MLS single season record, and he has 13 games to score them.

Jordan McCrary was sent off for Seattle in the 63rd minute for a second yellow, but Seattle navigated the final half hour or so to scoop up an unlikely point.

Atlanta still sits first with its earned point but opens the door for New York City FC to reach the top of the table when it plays its match-in-hand, while Seattle is now 11 points back of the West’s final playoff spot.

Anderson arrives: Can Pellegrini unlock West Ham’s potential?

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West Ham United has sealed another impressive deal, adding $48 million winger Felipe Anderson from Lazio.

It’s a club record deal from the Irons, whose ambitions have been short-circuited in recent seasons by stop-start play under Slaven Bilic and David Moyes.

[ MORE: FIFA awards Golden Ball, Golden Glove ]

Now Manuel Pellegrini is in charge, and has made a series of purchases including Anderson, Andriy Yarmolenko, Issa Diop, and Jack Wilshere amongst others.

Anderson was fantastic for Lazio last season, though he was part of a loaded attack with Ciro Immobile, Luis Alberto, and Sergej Malinkovic-Savic.

Now the challenge is gelling quickly inside a short window. As we’ve seen in the past with markedly changed mid-table sides — see: Everton’s 2017-18 season — hitting the ground running is key.

Players have been convinced of West Ham’s ambition. Here’s the latest, Anderson, from WHUFC.com:

“West Ham is a club with a lot of tradition, lots of great players have played here, like Bobby Moore, Carlos Tevez and Di Canio. They were great players and idols here, and I’m aiming big, who knows, maybe I could hit their heights and be a legend here too.”

But turning that into on-field success and in-room culture has been a challenge. The move to London Stadium didn’t help, and managerial instability has been anything but a boon to the Irons. There have been plenty of self-inflicted wounds, too.

West Ham’s lineup could be frightening, even in the face of injuries to Andy Carroll (surprise!) and Winston Reid. But managing egos new and old is a challenge, which is why the Pellegrini hire could be a masterstroke.

Consider this possible XI from Pellegrini, who largely operated his Manchester City with a 4-2-3-1 or a 4-4-2 with two holding/defensive/deep-lying center midfielders (There have been rumors West Ham could sell Cheikhou Kouyate).

There are a lot of options for Pellegrini’s front four. Anderson and Yarmolenko both prefer right wing, while Arnautovic likes the left but has proven adept as a center forward if Pellegrini becomes the latest manager to eschew the idea of Javier Hernandez up top. Manuel Lanzini‘s injury does seem to put Wilshere in the No. 10 role.

Fabianski

Fredericks — Diop — Balbuena — Masuaku

Obiang — Kouyate

Anderson — Wilshere — Yarmolenko

Arnautovic

So the ingredients are there, with Aaron Cresswell, Pablo Zabaleta, and Jordan Hugill joining Chicharito in keeping training competitive.

But Pellegrini will have to navigate a culture that saw a seedy finish to the season, with protests and ugly incidents amongst supporters and players on the field in London.

And he does seem the man for the job. But if he can’t do it… well, stay tuned.