Hojbjerg the great, young Dane ready to lead Saints’ revival

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SOUTHAMPTON — Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg is a born fighter. When he speaks, he speaks with purpose and you listen. When he walks out onto the pitch for Southampton he gives everything he has to the cause.

In the current situation Saints are in, they need Hojbjerg leading their charge out of the relegation zone under new manager Ralph Hasenhuttl in the tough weeks and months to come.

At the age of 23, Hojbjerg seems like the perfect man to lead Hasenhuttl’s high-pressing style from midfield with the Danish international becoming a firm fans favorite in Southampton as they called for him to become their new captain.

It is hard to not want Hojbjerg to do well, as he spoke eloquently to Pro Soccer Talk about doing all he can to succeed and trying to help his teammates around him improve at the same time.

Without a win since Sept. 1, and with just one PL victory from 16 games so far this season, Hojbjerg and Southampton welcome high-flying Arsenal to St Mary’s this Sunday (Watch live, 8:30 a.m. ET online via NBC Sports Gold).

Big changes have occurred at the top of the club in recent weeks with Les Reed, the long-time leader of their football operations fired, and Mark Hughes replaced by Hasenhuttl.

Many believe that Southampton is a club on the edge of the abyss, one that has no clear plan or direction to get themselves out of a second-straight relegation scrap after four years of top eight finishes, playing in Europe and going far in cups fuelled by buying low and selling high.

Their fiery Danish midfielder, who speaks Danish, French, German and English among other languages, thinks otherwise.

“It is always easy to point at one thing when things are not going as you’d like to, or expect to or as you thought so. I have to disagree,” Hojbjerg said. “I also have to be honest and say I don’t know exactly what the problem is. Because I think there are small parts that play a role and in the end it gives a result on the pitch. We, as players, we are the ones who go out on the pitch and we have to win the games. That is what I’m focusing on. That is what I’m trying to do to create a positive situation. I do not know what happens behind the doors of the directors, or staff members, or coaches. I can tell you that from the players perspective, we are giving everything on the training pitch and every Saturday and Sunday in the stadium. Because we know that is the main focus and that is the main achievement. That is football. That is on the pitch. That is getting results.”

Hasenhuttl has been tasked with changing Southampton’s fortunes around on the pitch, as the former RB Leipzig and Ingolstadt coach has run his players into the ground during his first full week at the club. Hojbjerg played against Hasenhuttl’s Ingolstadt during his time in Germany and described them as “nasty to play against” as well as being “tough and well organized.”

Gruelling longer training sessions, cancelling days off and painting new lines onto the training pitches at their Staplewood base are just a few of the ways he is trying to force Saints to become better organized as well as implement his famous high-press.

Hojbjerg has worn the captains armband for Southampton in recent weeks, and it is expected that will continue. With his straight-talking off the pitch and grit on it, he seems to have already a huge impact on those around him in his new role. This season, no other regular PL captain is under the age of 25.

The man who became the youngest-ever player for Bayern Munich in the Bundesliga in 2013 said being named Saints’ skipper was the “proudest moment” of his career so far and something he could only dream about when growing up in Copenhagen.

But what does it mean to be a leader?

“If you talk in the changing room then people will stop listening then,” Hojbjerg said. “Talking has to be done on the pitch. Talking has to be done when it is tough. Talking has to be done when the moment is tight and you have to show your personality, stand true and you have to be a leader. I always say there are eleven leaders on the pitch because we all need to support each other. We all need to take responsibility for the position we are in. Whatever it is, I think I always try to give it my best and 100 percent. I know what I stand for. I know what the club stands for and what the values are. I just try to be me.”

“I cannot swear but it is really big… yeah, to be captain in the Premier League, if you would have asked me when I was 10, 15, 17, I would have taken it any day of the week. I am not saying it because I am a Southampton player and I have to show I am a club man and I am dedicated. I am saying it from my heart. It is the proudest moment of my career to be recognized as a captain at Southampton Football Club in the Premier League, at my age. But again it is not something I think of when I go on the pitch. It is something you feel in your stomach. You are a little bit excited but once the football game starts I play exactly the same.”

In just over two years at Southampton, Hojbjerg has played for four permanent managers. Claude Puel, Mauricio Pellegrino, Hughes and now Hasenhuttl. He has tasted the high and lows of the game. From playing in the Europa League, major cup finals and semifinals and finishing in the top eight to just surviving relegation last season, the Dane has grown up on and off the pitch.

Despite his topsy-turvy start to life in England, Hojbjerg believes his decision to leave Bayern for Southampton was still the correct one.

“It is funny because you always expect when you come with that coach, or that teammate, you don’t expect that to change,” Hojbjerg said. “You come to the club with an idea of the coach, idea of your teammates and you don’t think ‘oh, but the coach is going to leave in six months or next week, or whatever.’ That was not the mindset that I came in with. But I came in with a mindset that now I am a part of Southampton Football Club. I am not a part of this coach, or this player or this sporting director. I am a part of Southampton Football Club. That was one of the big reasons that I came here. What I have felt for a long time is that even though the club, in a very short time, became a ‘big small club’ if you know what I mean, there were good traditions, good people, good experienced people who knew the club from inside for a long time. So there are values you can rely on, you could depend on and see yourself in. That was a big positive.”

Life off the pitch is settling down for Hojbjerg in England.

He lives in Winchester, a picturesque English cathedral city 15 minutes outside of Southampton with his partner and his young daughter, Rosa, and enjoys hitting up the grocery store at least once a week. When there he stocks his cart with vegetables and anything healthy he can get. He jokes when asked if he cooks: “I try to cook, but I’m not good at it. There is a thing called ketchup. It is quite useful.”

Having a child in his first few years in England has brought a whole new dimension to Hojbjerg, a young man who had to deal with tragedy at the age of 18 when his father passed away after a battle with stomach cancer.

The tough times he has been through on a personal level in the past few years have no doubt led Hojbjerg to thinking about the bigger picture more than most.

“When you get older your values and intentions become stronger, of who you are and what you want to do,” Hojbjerg said. “As you get older, you get more experienced, as you have family and have a kid, things just point in one direction to really what you want to achieve in life and in your career. I am very ambitious but I am also very realistic. I know what I want, I know what I can’t do. I will never stop until I’m finished… I think I am in a good moment, playing wise, but it is difficult to perform 100 percent when, to be fair, we are struggling in the league. I am giving my best, I am trying my best and I know I can get better but I also know I am in a very good way.”

This season the busy central midfielder has added goals and a cutting edge to his game, with a sensational strike against Brighton the highlight (also his first in the PL), plus he scored in Saints’ only win of the campaign away at Crystal Palace.

Hojbjerg also struck the post at Wembley in a recent defeat to Tottenham Hotspur and in his last four PL games he has had 14 shots at goal, one of the highest totals of any player in the league. Not bad for someone who primarily plays in front of the back four. It is clear he is doing anything he can to help drag his team out of the bottom three.

Always up for the challenge, Hojbjerg is ready to take on whoever and whatever stands in Southampton’s way this season as a great, young Dane could be the difference between them staying up or going down.

“I have a home with love, and a family. That is the most important thing. When I come here, to the training ground, I am energized and ready to go again every single day and take on whoever stands in front of me!” Hojbjerg said, holding his arms out and smiling. “That is how it is. I am ready for whoever stands in front of me.”

Report: Matches in Italy could be played behind closed doors this week

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For at least the next week, we could see matches in Italy played behind closed doors due to the Coronavirus scare.

According to a report in Gazzetta Dello Sport, the Italian sports minister, Vincenzo Spadafora, has determined that clubs based in regions where there have been positive Coronavirus (officially known as Covid-19) cases will need to play matches without fans for at least the next week.

An NBC News report from Sunday cited Italian government officials stating more than 133 people had tested positive for COVID-19, and that ten cities in Northern Italy were on lockdown.

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The Italian sporting authorities are trying to keep people from congregating together in large numbers, where the virus could potentially spread.

In a sporting context, this reported decision from the Italian government will also create headaches within Juventus FC. The club has a massive match next Saturday against Inter Milan, and would likely prefer to either have it cancelled or moved to a safe location so it could be played with fans in attendance.

La Liga: Sevilla leapfrogs Getafe into 3rd place

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BARCELONA, Spain (AP) Sevilla leapfrogged Getafe to take third place in the Spanish league after routing the season’s surprise team 3-0 in Madrid on Sunday.

Sevilla beat Getafe at its own game, out-muscling the hosts with a suffocating defense and demonstrating clinical finishing to convert its scant scoring chances.

The Andalusian side got an opener from Lucas Ocampos in the 43rd minute. Midfielder Fernando doubled the lead in the 67th before he set up Jules Kounde to seal the victory in the 75th.

[ MORE: La Liga scores, schedule ]

Sevilla lost goalkeeper Tomas Vaclik to an apparent leg injury before the second half started. He was replaced by Yassine Bounou, who was never tested.

The victory ended Sevilla’s five-game winless streak across all competitions that put coach Julen Lopetegui under growing pressure to restore the team’s good form from the first half of the season.

Getafe has had an outstanding campaign, fighting for a Champions League spot for next season despite its modest budget.

Getafe’s loss was just its fourth at home in any competition this season. It lost last round away at Barcelona, but had bounced back with a 2-0 win over Ajax in the Europa League on Thursday.

Sevilla moved one point ahead of Getafe, which dropped into fourth place. Leader Barcelona is 12 points ahead of Sevilla.

Real Madrid trails Barcelona by two points before the two teams meet next weekend.

Elsewhere in La Liga action, Atletico Madrid took home a 3-1 result over Villarreal, adding to the club’s already great week. Villarreal went up first through Paco Alcacer, but Atleti hit back with goals from Angel Correa, Koke, and Joao Felix. It was Felix’s first game back after a hamstring strain, and England National Team right back Kieran Trippier made his return to the field for the first time since early January.

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Here are other scores from Sunday’s La Liga action:

Osasuna 0-3 Granada

Alaves 2-1 Athletic Bilbao

Real Valladolid 2-1 Espanyol

American’s Abroad: Strong defensive performances and an eye for the future

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It wasn’t exactly a banner week for American attackers abroad, but there were some fine defensive performances and some youngsters making a name for themselves.

Both John Brooks of Wolfsburg and Tim Ream of Fulham played the full 90 in their team’s matches this weekend. Brooks led Wolfsburg to a 4-0 rout of Mainz, while Fulham played Derby County to a 1-1 stalemate. Derby County’s only goal however came off a Wayne Rooney penalty kick, as otherwise Ream and co. kept Derby out through the run of play.

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There were some bright notes for the future, however. Both Ajax youngster Alex Mendez and Wolfsburg U-19 star Uly Llanez scored in action for their teams, as did Wisconsin native Andrija Novakovich, who assisted on one goal and scored the second in Frosinone’s 2-0 win over Crotone, lifting Alessandro Nesta’s side to second in Serie B. If the season ended today, Novakovich would be playing in Serie A next year. Former Sporting Kansas City Homegrown talent Erik Palmer-Brown also scored in Austria Wien’s 2-2 draw with Jesse Marsch and RB Salzburg

Here is a list of several other USMNT affiliates making a name for themselves (or not) abroad this weekend.

Premier League

Christian Pulisic, Chelsea — Pulisic is still recovering from his injury and missed Chelsea’s 2-1 win over Tottenham on Saturday.

DeAndre Yedlin, Newcastle — Yedlin made the bench but didn’t see action in Newcastle’s 1-0 defeat to Crystal Palace on Saturday.

Indiana Vassilev, Aston Villa — Vassilev didn’t dress in Aston Villa’s 2-0 defeat to Southampton on Saturday.

EFL Championship

Antonee Robinson, Wigan Athletic —  For a third weekend in a row Robinson did not dress for Wigan. Robinson continues to deal with a groin injury that ended the potential loan move to AC Milan.

Duane Holmes, Derby County — Holmes did not dress in Derby’s 1-1 draw with Fulham after suffering an ankle injury on February 15 against Huddersfield Town.

Matt Miazga, Reading (loan from Chelsea) — The 24-year-old is out with a hamstring injury. There is no timeline on his return.

Eric Lichaj, Hull City — The defender is out for the season after sustaining an injury.

Geoff Cameron, QPR — The 34-year-old defender started and played 90 minutes in QPR’s 0-0 draw with Nottingham Forest.

Tim Ream, Fulham — Ream started and played 90 minutes in Fulham’s 1-1 draw with Derby County on Friday.

Cameron Carter-Vickers, Luton Town (loan Tottenham Hotspur) — Carter-Vickers started and played 90 minutes in Luton’s 3-1 defeat to Charlton Athletic.

League One

Lynden Gooch, Sunderland — The 24-year-old American scored the game-winning-goal in Sunderland’s 3-0 win over Bristol Rovers, which moved Sunderland into fourth place in the table, just three points behind first place Rotherham United. A strong spring could put Gooch on USMNT coach Gregg Berhalter’s radar.

Bundesliga

Timmy Chandler, Eintracht Frankfurt Chandler and Eintracht Frankfurt play on Monday at home against Union Berlin

John Brooks, Wolfsburg – The 26-year-old defender started, played 90 minutes, and helped keep a clean sheet in Wolfsburg’s 4-0 win over Mainz.

Weston McKennie, Schalke —  McKennie started but only played 55 minutes as Schalke was routed, 5-0 by RB Leipzig.

Tyler Adams, RB Leipzig — Adams is out with an injury. There is no timeline on his return.

Zack Steffen and Alfredo Morales, Fortuna Dusseldorf — Steffen is out with an injury, while Morales came off the bench and played 23 minutes in Dusseldorf’s 2-0 win at Freiburg on Saturday.

Josh Sargent, Werder Bremen  Sargent came off the bench and played seven minutes plus stoppage time in Werder Bremen’s 2-0 loss to Borussia Dortmund.

Gio Reyna, Borussia Dortmund Reyna made his sixth Bundesliga appearance this season, coming in for Jadon Sancho and played 13 minutes in a 2-0 win over Werder Bremen

Fabian Johnson, Borussia Mönchengladbach Johnson did not dress for Monchengladbach’s 1-1 draw with Johnson’s former club, Hoffenheim.

Eredivisie

Sergino Dest, Ajax — Dest started and played 90 minutes in Ajax’s surprise 1-0 defeat at Heracles.

Haji Wright, VVV-Venlo — The 21-year-old striker started and played all 90 minutes in a 1-0 win over FC Groningen.

Ligue 1

Timothy Weah, Lille — After a six-month absence, Weah featured for Lille on February 16, playing the final 10 minutes in Lille’s 2-1 loss to Marseille. Unfortunately, in that game, Weah suffered another muscle injury, this time a torn right hamstring that will leave him out indefinitely.

Theoson Jordan-Siebatcheu, Rennes — Jordon-Siebatcheu did not dress for Rennes in its 2-1 win over Nimes.

Honorable Mentions

Kenny Saief, Lechia Gdansk, on loan from Anderlecht — The American-Israeli made his first appearance on the field in around 10 months, playing 13 minutes off the bench in Gdansk’s 2-0 defeat to Lech Poznan. Saief’s injury problems and a falling out in Cincinnati during his loan there led to it being terminated early. However, he wasn’t in Anderlecht’s plans this fall, meaning he had to wait until the January transfer window to find a new club after he failed to move during the summer.

Ian Harkes, Dillon Powers, Dundee United — I don’t know the last time this has happened, but in the 57th minute Harkes (son of John Harkes) came on for Powers in a rare American for American substitution abroad. It’s safe to say that while rare, we could see this happening again, as both Harkes and Powers play similar positions in midfield.

Serie A: Lazio, Roma pick up important wins

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On a day when most Serie A cities were on edge as games were canceled over Coronavirus fears, two games were able to be played to their conclusion, with important results.

Ciro Immobile added another goal to his league-leading scoring mark as Lazio outlasted Genoa, 3-2, on the road. Immobile’s 51st minute goal was his 27th of the Serie A season, putting him six goals ahead of Cristiano Ronaldo.

[ MORE: Serie A scores, schedule ]

Lazio only needed two minutes to get on the board as Felipe Caicedo played a pass forward, which right back Adam Marusic latched onto. He then had defenders bouncing off him as he slalomed his way forward into the box and fired into the roof of the net. In transition six minutes into the second half, Immobile rifled a strike home to put Lazio up 2-0. Francesco Cassata’s golazo from the top of the box, a curling effort into the top corner, gave Genoa some life, though Lazio restored the two-goal advantage in the 71st minute through Danilo Cataldi.

Domenico Criscito scored a late penalty kick in second half stoppage time to bring Genoa within one goal again, but it was too little, too late from the hosts. With the win, Lazio keep the pressure on Juventus, sitting just one point behind the leaders on the same number of games played, 25.

Roma 4-0 Lecce

Roma returned to winning ways on Sunday with a crucial 4-0 rout of Lecce at the Stadio Olimpico.

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Coming off three straight defeats and a draw in Serie A action, it was one of the young guns, who’s had an up and down season this year, get Roma first on the board. Outside of Turkish winger Cenkiz Under, it was veterans Edin Dzeko and Henrik Mkhitaryan who stole the show.

In the 13th minute, Mkhitaryan sliced through the Lecce defense before feeding a short pass to the oncoming Under, who powered a strike past Mauro Vigorito for the game’s opening goal. In the 37th minute, Dzeko combined yet again with Mkhitaryan, finding the Armenian international running into the box before Mkhitaryan slotted home.

Dzeko then in the second half scored from close range to make it 3-0, and his former Manchester City teammate, Aleksandr Kolarov put the finishing touches on the rout with a blast from the left side of the box.

Thanks to the prior defeats, Roma currently sits outside of the UEFA Champions League slots, but the win on Sunday brought them within three points of Atalanta and the fourth and final Champions League place. However, Atalanta has a game-in-hand on Roma.