Shambolic Southampton hurtling towards relegation

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For so long they’ve been the poster boys of how to run a Premier League club.

An academy envied around the globe. A sell high, buy low player recruitment policy which has worked superbly. Overachieving season after season. Plucking managerial gems from overseas to work wonders. Europa League campaigns. Cup runs. Everything they’ve done has gone smoothly with four-straight top eight finishes in the PL table.

Until now. With just one win in their last 18 Premier League games, Southampton are staring relegation in the face in one of the biggest surprises of the current Premier League campaign.

But when you look at Southampton right now, should we be this surprised?

The South Coast club are hurtling towards relegation as their increasingly shambolic season hit a new low on Saturday in the 3-0 defeat at West Ham with players not only looking out of their depth but also showing a distinct lack of desire in a pivotal moment.

With seven games to go Saints occupy the final relegation place and despite everything they’re just two points from safety. They may still get out of this but it will likely be down to the poor form of Crystal Palace, Huddersfield and Swansea rather than their own good form in the final months of the season as they face five of the current top nine in their remaining games.

In his first Premier League game in charge of Southampton, Mark Hughes saw his team roll over early on and lose 3-0. It was the second game in a row Southampton had lost 3-0 to direct relegation rivals and they are running out of chances to save themselves from being relegated from the Premier League for just the second time in club history.

On the face of it, their squad has the talent to easily be sitting in midtable but with 13 draws (the most in the PL this season) they’ve often seemed scared to be positive and take the game to their opponents. On paper they should be battling Leicester, Everton and Watford to finish in seventh or eighth place. But something isn’t right. They are a nice team to watch, at times, with plenty of possession and sideways passes but there is not cutting edge, no drive and no real purpose to their play.

Too often it appears that their players are drifting, going through the motions and living off the success of the past few seasons when everyone exclaimed: “What a wonderful season from Southampton. How do they carry on doing this?”

This squad, which has been so hungry for success over the past six years since Saints were promoted back to the Premier League, seem to have suddenly lost their appetite. With long-term contracts dished out to Fraser Forster, Jack Stephens, Ryan Bertrand, Cedric Soares, Oriol Romeu and others, it appears this Saints team are in cruise control as huge deals were handed out mostly as a reward for performances in the past few seasons. The players must take most of the blame.

But the fans and board also have to take their share of their blame. Claude Puel was fired last season amid plenty of fan unrest for finishing in eighth place and reaching a cup final because his team were “too boring” to watch. How costly could that unrest prove?

Nothing changed under Puel’s replacement, Mauricio Pellegrino, who was fired at the start of this month after just five wins in 30 PL games. And nothing appears to be changing quickly under Hughes. You can question the desire of this group, but maybe they aren’t as good as we think. The sacking of two managers on the spin by the board in the expectation that some kind of miracle turnaround will occur must also be questioned.

Quite simply the culture of endlessly selling on their best players for huge profits, then replacing them with young, hungry players from elsewhere in Europe, has come back to bite them. Hard.

Nathan Redmond was supposed to be the direct replacement for Sadio Mane. He hasn’t been anywhere near Mane’s level. Wesley Hoedt came in as Virgil Van Dijk‘s replacement and has since lost his place in the Dutch squad for his shaky displays. Charlie Austin replaced Graziano Pelle but has been injured most of his time at Saints. Victor Wanyama was replaced by Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg and Mario Lemina who were both at fault for the first two goals at West Ham.

When you start to add all of that up, it starts to make sense why Southampton are in the position they’re in. They no longer have a clear playing identity. Their recruitment team have stopped unearthing gems for relative peanuts. Their academy has stopped churning out ready-made internationals a la Luke Shaw and Adam Lallana.

Austin, Saints’ top scorer this season with six goals, returned from a three-month injury layoff on Saturday and looked stunned when speaking to the media after the defeat at West Ham.

“It just wasn’t good enough and we got what we deserved,” Austin said. “Seven games left, we’ve got to get out of this hole. We’ve given ourselves a massive mountain to climb now. We’ve got the players to do it but off that performance, we need to improve fast. We need to win and we need to win fast. That is it.”

Austin sounded hollow when he said he believed in this current set of players and the new management team to turn this around.

Saints have Arsenal away, Chelsea at home and Leicester away in their next three Premier League games, with the distraction of an FA Cup semifinal against Chelsea at Wembley on Apr. 22 also looming.

They simply have to cause upsets, just like they used to in the past at their tight, atmospheric home at the Dell. During the 1990s they pulled off great escape after great escape as one of the smallest clubs in the Premier League. Their current manager Hughes was part of some of those Saints teams and he needs to instill some kind of spirit, some kind of togetherness in a squad of international caliber players who seem to think they are too good to be playing in a team battling against relegation.

For Hughes, his first 45 minutes in charge of Saints in the Premier League was a horror show as he admitted the performance “surprised him greatly” given what he had seen in training since he took over.

“It maybe emphasized some of the problems the team has had of late in this season. We’re going to have to turn it around very quickly,” Hughes said. “We are running out of games. There has to be an understanding that we are in trouble here and we need to turn it around quickly.”

Among the players there doesn’t seem to be an understanding, or a realization, of the deep trouble they are in. Only games against Bournemouth and Swansea in their final seven outings represent realistic chances to gain points to save themselves.

The last time Southampton were relegated from the Premier League, in 2005, they spiraled into financial meltdown and almost went bust as they ended up at the bottom of the third tier on -10 points and were saved by a Swiss billionaire at the last moment. Their fall won’t be as dramatic this time around but these players don’t seem to have grasped the severity of the situation they’re in.

Under Chinese ownership since the start of this season, the Gao Family will not have expected to have bought 80 percent of Southampton for $294 million and see them struggling in the relegation zone.

Nobody did. And especially not the players. Not even now.

That is the biggest problem of them all and one that you can’t see Saints solving in the next seven games.

Southampton’s shambolic season has reached the pivotal juncture. It is now sink or swim time.

Right now you’d bet your mortgage on Saints sinking like a stone towards the second tier.

Man United boss Solskjaer slams Liverpool’s trophy drought

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Ole Gunnar Solskjaer fired one across Jurgen Klopp‘s bow ahead of Manchester United’s meeting with Liverpool at Old Trafford on Sunday.

In particular, the former Manchester United striker took aim at Liverpool’s lack of titles over the past decade, and their lack of a Premier League title. With the knowledge that the Red Devils are not in the title race and their adversaries are, Solskjaer hopes United can get back to the top spot soon, wary of a lengthy drought.

[ PREVIEW: Manchester United v. Liverpool ]

“I have loads of Liverpool fans back home [in Norway] and every year is going to be their year,” Solskjaer said ahead of Sunday’s match at 9:05 a.m. ET. “It has got to October and it’s: ‘OK, next year.’ Now they are in the race so for them, it is going to be an exciting finish to the league. That is none of our concern. We just have to concentrate on ourselves.”

Manchester United has not won a Premier League title in the wake of Sir Alex Ferguson‘s retirement. Under his care, the club won 12 Premier League titles plus five FA Cup titles and four League Cup titles. Meanwhile, Liverpool has not won a Premier League crown in its history, last winning the English top flight in 1990, two years before the formation of the Premier League as it currently stands.

“Of course they do feel that pressure,” Solskjaer said of Liverpool. “I think all the supporters do and players probably do as well. But then we have not won it for a few years and so we want to get back to that. We have to make sure that we don’t end up being happy being among the top four. If you aim too low and reach your target, then that’s more dangerous than aiming too high and missing them.”

Solskjaer is very familiar with the rivalry between these two clubs, dating back to his time as a player. Most notably, he scored a 90th minute winner in 1990 FA Cup play against the Reds after coming off the bench in the 81st minute.

Roma boss Di Francesco worried after late win

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Edin Dzeko saved Roma in the 95th minute, sealing a 3-2 win over Frosinone and moving the club back to within a point of a Champions League place. Roma manager Eusebio Di Francesco wasn’t having it.

“We can’t keep getting away with this type of performance,” Di Francesco said to the media after the game.

[ MORE: Serie A recap as Roma and Torino win ]

Despite its solid league position down the stretch of the season, the club has looked shaky at times. On Saturday, the defense put forth a calamitous performance at the back filled with mistakes, bad passes, poor marking, and questionable decision-making. The game was tied 2-2 for most of the second half with Roma’s relegation-threatened opponents nearly pulling out a win if it wasn’t for goalkeeper Robin Olsen’s spectacular save.

“The positive from this evening is that we won, but I do hope he can start to play much better football from now on,” Di Francesco said. “The second goal came from our own set play and our positioning was off, Daniele De Rossi misread the situation.”

“Frosinone are scrapping for every point to secure safety and I know what that is like. We made too many mistakes and should’ve approached the game better, as we risked a draw or even a defeat. We always find a way to make life more complicated for ourselves with distractions.”

Frosinone’s first goal came from a mistake by Steven N’Zonzi, whose back-pass to no one was intercepted by Camillo Ciano who scored despite a great save attempt by Olsen. The hosts scored their second on the break as De Rossi and Aleksandr Kolarov were torn apart on the break despite a one-on-two advantage for the defenders.

“We had the game in hand and should’ve finished it off rather than just tried to control it. We’ve shown over the season that we are a team capable of scoring goals, but also of conceding them. We’ve got to improve.”

Despite the poor defensive performance, the attack played spectacular at times, with Stephan El Shaarawy the star and Dzeko a force. Dzeko was on hand to bundle in the winner five minutes into stoppage time as El Shaarawy lofted a short cross over a defender and into the chest of the Bosnian striker.

League Cup Final preview: Sarri, Pep match wits for 4th time

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Sunday’s League Cup Final could be a moment for one manager to right his ship, or drive the other to the start of an improbable quadruple.

Chelsea’s Maurizio Sarri duels with Manchester City’s Pep Guardiola on Sunday at Wembley Stadium, just 14 days after the latter outmaneuvered the former to the tune of a 6-0 shellacking at the Etihad Stadium.

[ RECAP: West Ham 3-1 Fulham ]

The loss was Chelsea’s second to City this season, though the Blues did manage a 2-0 defeat in league play at Stamford Bridge on Dec. 8.

It’s also the second time the two will go head-to-head for silverware, as Man City outlasted Chelsea 2-0 for the Community Shield on Aug. 5.

That loss to City didn’t send the Chelsea faithful scurrying from “Sarriball,” but they’ve become far less supportive of the Blues’ boss.

And Chelsea defender Antonio Rudiger says Friday is a chance for his side to show the supporters the better side of what Sarri has implemented at Stamford Bridge.

“That will show the truth,” Rudiger said. “That will show our way this ­season. It will be the truth in terms of  keeping up with opponents like City Liverpool and Tottenham. What if it shows we are not that close? Then that is the reality.”

“You always play for your manager but you want results. You want to win. No player likes to have the kind of run we’ve had.”

Rudiger is a quote-giving marvel. Chelsea needs to keep him just for the departure from the norm he provides the media.

As for Guardiola, he’s also supportive of Sarri and thinks the Blues faithful should take a step back. He references the heat given to Antonio Conte the year after he won a Premier League crown.

Guardiola is also not thrilled that the 6-0 result is the last time City played Chelsea. From The London Evening Standard:

“In that moment I was so happy to beat them 6-0, but now in this moment I would prefer not to have beaten them 6-0. I don’t like to play in a short period of time when you’ve beaten them by so much,” he said. “They are incredible professional players, they are proud, they will do extra.”

“When we lost there and when we won here, my opinion of Sarri and his teams is always high. When we reviewed the game against us, maybe people don’t believe me, but they did incredible things.”

They’ll have to do more incredible things Sunday at Wembley, or City will lay claim to its fourth League Cup title in six tries (and seventh overall).

The winner Sunday will have the second-most League Cup wins in history.

League Cup Final Preview: Chelsea-Man City

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  • Both Chelsea and Man City have won the League Cup 5 times in club history
  • These teams have never met before in the League Cup final
  • Only 4 clubs have successfully retained the League Cup trophy

Chelsea looks to prove the 6-0 thwacking at the hands of Manchester City two weeks ago was a fluke as the two sides meet with a trophy on the line in the Carabao Cup final on Sunday at 11:30 a.m. ET at Wembley Stadium.

Blues boss Maurizio Sarri has been under fire the last few weeks for a downturn in form, with the club having lost three of its last four Premier League matches, including the heavy defeat to Man City. They have conceded 12 goals in those four matches, blown out not just by Man City but also by Bournemouth, plus a loss to an inconsistent Arsenal side to start the slide.

With a massive chance for Sarri to make a statement that he deserves his position, the Italian may be without first-choice goalkeeper Kepa Arrizabalaga who picked up a hamstring injury of late, and could be sidelined alongside Pedro and Davide Zappacosta who both have fallen ill.

For Manchester City, Pep Guardiola will have to make decisions on who to risk amid a tight Premier League title battle with Liverpool. While the trophy obviously means something to both sides, it also presents yet another fixture that could prove costly amid a tight league race which could have implications on the final few months.

Guardiola doesn’t expect to roll over the Blues with the same ease they did two weeks ago. “I don’t like to play the same team in a short period of time when you have beaten them before,” he said in his pre-match press conference. “They [Chelsea] are incredibly professional players, they are proud and bright and will do extra. We are going to play the type of game you have to play in a final and try to win the title.”

The biggest of Guardiola’s selection questions are in net, with the decision of starting regular number one goalkeeper Ederson or third-string Arijanet Muric who has been the go-to netminder for the entire League Cup run. Backup Claudio Bravo has been sidelined for the year with a long-term injury.

“Of course it is not the most important title of the season but once we are here in an amazing stadium against a top side, we want to prepare to win,” Guardiola said.

Also in question may be striker Sergio Aguero who scored a hat-trick against Chelsea last time out. He has featured in two of the five League Cup matches, but the final could be a high-pressure situation to give Gabriel Jesus a look while also giving Aguero some time off. The 30-year-old Aguero has featured in each of the last 10 Premier League matches.