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.

Toronto FC suspends all supporter groups after Ottawa stadium fire

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The Ottawa police were called and the match halted after flares thrown from the Toronto FC supporter section set fire to the stadium and pitch during a Canadian Cup match between Toronto FC and Ottawa Fury on Wednesday night.

Videos caught the Toronto FC supporters holding and throwing flares around the 72nd minute of the match, but things backfired when their flags accidentally caught fire, followed by parts of the bleachers next to them. One video posted to Twitter (shown below) shows the fans scrambling to put out the blazing flags and the fires in the stands where they are sitting.

Toronto FC announced Thursday afternoon that the club was temporarily suspending all supporter group privileges while they conduct an investigation to root out who is responsible.

“The safety of our fans, employees, and supporters is the highest priority for TFC,” said Toronto FC club president Bill Manning in a statement. “The events which took place in Ottawa last night involving TFC supporters were unacceptable and needlessly put the safety of others at risk.”

Due to the seriousness of this incident, we are left with no choice but to suspend all recognized supporter group privileges indefinitely as we conduct a thorough review TFC’s recognized supporter program. We are cooperating fully with the Ottawa Police Department as they investigate this incident and work to identify those responsible.”

Another video posted from a lower angle shows a player attempting to stamp out a small fire on the field of play when a loud bang comes from the Toronto FC supporter section behind him.

Ottawa Fury released a statement of their own after the match, seemingly downplaying the incident after the flares were smuggled in past security checkpoints.

“Upon seeing smoke and fire, which appeared to be more serious than they were, fans in other parts of the stadium notified Ottawa Police and Ottawa Fire that an incident had occurred and emergency services quickly responded,” the Ottawa Fury statement said. “Upon arrival they confirmed the incident had been resolved and returned to their respective stations.”

“All members of the visiting supporters group had been subjected to bag checks and security scans prior to entering the stadium and no fireworks or other devices were detected. TFC has apologized for the behavior of the members of the supporters group responsible for igniting the fireworks. Ottawa Police have launched an investigation into the incident.”

Canadian media is reporting that the ownership group of the stadium will be fined for allowing the flares to enter the stadium undetected. The match was temporarily halted while the incident was sorted, and the fans were reportedly ejected from the match. The game ended in a 1-0 road victory for Toronto, with the second leg of the semifinal to come.

Scottish club Hearts fields ineligible player in Cup match

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Scottish club Hearts of Midlothian has issued a statement saying they are “embarrassed” after fielding an ineligible player in a League Cup match against 5th-tier semi-pro team Cove Rangers on Wednesday.

18-year-old Hearts youth product Andrew Irving entered in the 65th minute as a substitute for Olly Lee, but was ineligible due to what the club is calling an “administrative error.” Irving, according to the Hearts statement, signed a contract extension back in January but the paperwork was never correctly submitted to the league, hence leaving Irving as unregistered.

“It is with much embarrassment that we have to advise that during last night’s Betfred Cup group stage match away to Cove Rangers, Hearts inadvertently fielded an ineligible player,” Hearts Chief Executive Ann Budge said in a statement on Thursday morning.

“While stringent processes are already in place to try to prevent something of this nature occurring, clearly mistakes can happen.  An additional step in our internal procedures will be implemented immediately to try to ensure this cannot happen again. The club would like to apologize to its supporters, to Cove Rangers Football Club and to the footballing authorities for this inadvertent breach of the rules.”

Since the Scottish League Cup – currently known as the Betfred Cup – has utilized a group stage format the last few years, it is possible that the club will be docked points instead of ejected from the tournament. Previously, clubs such as Brechin, Dunfermline, and East Stirling were all disqualified in the past for similar offenses, according to Mark Donaldson of ESPN. The league will hold a hearing on Monday to determine the appropriate sanctions.

Hearts won the match 2-1 on a 57th minute goal by former Cardiff City, Plymouth, and Rangers striker Steve MacLean.

This is the second incident of this nature of late, as Major League Soccer club LAFC is under investigation for potentially fielding an illegal seven international players in a US Open Cup match against Portland Timbers on Wednesday. As a result, US Soccer postponed the draw for the semifinals until the investigation is complete.

6 clubs fined, risk FIFA transfer bans for debts to players

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ZURICH (AP) Clubs from Russia and Qatar are among six fined by FIFA and warned they risk one-year transfer bans for failing to settle debts to players.

[ MORE: Steffen to England? ]

FIFA says the clubs also face deductions of six league points if they fail to pay the debts in 30 to 90 days.

The clubs are: Kuban of Russia; Al Arabi and Al Kharaitiyat of Qatar; Zamalek of Egypt; Al Jazira of the United Arab Emirates; and Mersin Idman Yurdu of Turkey.

FIFA says all failed to comply with rulings by FIFA or the Court of Arbitration for Sport “to pay significant overdue amounts of money to players.”

They were fined between 15,000 and 30,000 Swiss francs ($15,000 and $30,000).

FIFA says national soccer federations face disciplinary cases if they fail to enforce the verdicts.

Premier League friendlies: Liverpool meets BVB; Everton in Portugal

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The Premier League is three weeks and one day from opening its 2018-19 slate, when Leicester City will visit Old Trafford for a Friday afternoon match with Manchester United.

The end of the World Cup has eyeballs trained on friendlies, with 19 Premier League teams doing work over the weekend.

[ MORE: Transfer rumor roundup ]

The International Champions Cup has a pair of matches on the docket.

Friday sees Pep Guardiola and Manchester City, sans many of their World Cup stars, mixing it up with Christian Pulisic and Borussia Dortmund in Chicago.

Then Sunday will see Borussia Dortmund switching gears and time zones, tangling with Liverpool in North Carolina as Pulisic renews acquaintances with old pal Jurgen Klopp.

Manchester United takes on San Jose on Sunday, two days after facing Club America.

Other marquee friendlies of the weekend include Bournemouth facing American back Shaq Moore and Levante on Friday, with Fulham hosting Lyon on Saturday, and Everton meeting Lille and Porto on consecutive Portuguese days Saturday and Sunday.

Friday

Bournemouth vs. Levante
Burnley vs. Macclesfield Town
Burnley vs. Curzon Ashton
Cardiff City vs Torquay
Manchester City vs. Borussia Dortmund (in Chicago)

Saturday

Brighton and Hove Albion vs. AFC Wimbledon
Crystal Palace vs. Oxford United
Everton vs. Lille
Fulham vs. Lyon
Huddersfield Town vs. Real Betis
Huddersfield Town vs. Roy-Weiss Essen or Werder Bremen
Leicester City vs. Notts County
Southampton vs. Derby County
Watford vs. Fortuna Dusseldorf
West Ham United vs. Preston North End

Sunday

Everton vs. Porto
Huddersfield Town vs. Darmstadt
Liverpool vs. Borussia Dortmund (in North Carolina)
Manchester United vs. San Jose Earthquakes (in Santa Clara)
Wolverhampton vs. TBD