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

Leave a comment

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.”

Nani scores twice as Orlando City thrashes FC Cincinnati

Leave a comment

Nani may not be the star he once was while he played for Manchester United, but he’s still making a powerful impact in MLS.

The Portuguese international scored his sixth and seventh goals of the season as Orlando City ran circles expansion side FC Cincinnati, winning 5-1. Along with Nani, Tesho Akindele scored a brace and Dom Dwyer came off the bench and scored a header in the win.

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights ]

Aside from having a chance to record a big win over a struggling side, Orlando City may have been ultra motivated on Sunday. Orlando City manager James O’Connor has history with FC Cincinnati from his time at Louisville City, with intense rivalry matches taking place as well as arguments between O’Connor and former FC Cincinnati coach Alan Koch on the sidelines.

FC Cincinnati actually went up early with a Darren Mattocks finish past Brian Rowe, but it didn’t take long for Orlando City to respond. Akindele fired home from 20-yards out in the 37th minute to make it 1-1. Early in the second half, Nani scored on a penalty kick rebound to make it 2-1 to the hosts, and then he added a second off a cross from the right to blast the game wide open.

With the win, Orlando City moved just one point outside of a playoff place, while Cincinnati remains in the basement of the Eastern Conference. However, Orlando City has a difficult road ahead, with matches against the LA Galaxy, Montreal Impact and D.C. United to come.

Serie A: Napoli rout Inter, leaving UCL race wide open heading into final week

Getty Images
Leave a comment

The race for the third and four places in Serie A, and with it, a berth in the UEFA Champions League next season, remain open heading into the final week of the season, thanks to a stellar performance from Napoli.

Playing at home in the Stadio San Paolo, Napoli thrashed Inter Milan, 4-1, to keep Inter in fourth place in the table on 66 points. That’s just one point ahead of AC Milan in fifth place, which jumped up after a 2-0 win over Frosinone, and three points ahead of AS Roma, which succumbed to a scoreless draw with Sassuolo this weekend. Atalanta meanwhile came ten minutes from beating Juventus in Turin, and even with a point in a 1-1 draw, Atalanta is still only in third place by 66 points.

[READ: Bayern Munich still too good for the rest this season]

Piotr Zielinski made a statement with a 30-yard blast past Samir Handanovic in the 16th minute to put Napoli up 1-0 and then Dries Mertens and a pair of goals from Fabian Ruiz gave the Neapolitans a massive lead, while leaving Inter in a precarious position. Mauro Icardi scored late to give Inter a small reprieve, but the defeat was set and it leaves Inter essentially needing to win in the final week of the season to secure a place in the Champions League next year.

Elsewhere, Josip Ilicic scored his 12th league goal of the season as Atalanta took Juventus down to the wire in Juve’s final home match of the season. Juventus fans serenaded Andrea Barzagli, playing his final game for the Bianconeri, and even had a message of support for Daniele De Rossi.

Gianluigi Buffon was even in attendance.

Also in action in Serie A, Parma beat Fiorentina, 1-0 and Empoli defeated Torino, 4-1.

Report: Former Chelsea great Clarke set to be new Scotland manager

Getty Images
Leave a comment

The Scotland FA is set to appoint a former Chelsea star as its new men’s national team manager.

Former Chelsea midfielder, and West Bromwich Albion and Reading manager Steve Clark is reportedly in talks with the Scotland FA to take over the national team. Clark has a difficult job ahead, with Scotland already having lost, 3-0, at Kazakhstan in UEFA Euro 2020 qualifying.

[ STREAM: Every PL match live ]

 

Although Scotland finished top of their group in Level C of the UEFA Nations League and earning promotion to League B, the team’s play was very up and down under Alex McLeish, back in the job after a one-year spell in 2017. McLeish eventually lost the federation’s support after the 3-0 defeat at Kazakhstan, ranked then 117th in the world, made Scotland look like Europe’s whipping boy. Though Scotland saved some face with a 2-0 win over San Marino, the damage was done.

Clarke, after disappointing tenures at West Bromwich and Reading in his first full managerial roles, has since found success in Scotland. He’s led Kilmarnock this season to third place in the table and a spot in the Europa League, an impressive feat considering the club’s budget is dwarfed by Celtic and Rangers. Hibernians and Hearts of Midlothain have also recently spent big on new signings, yet Kilmarnock finished above them this season.

Clarke, who only played a half dozen times for Scotland during his playing career, will now have to galvanize the squad ahead of two crucial qualifications in June and quickly imprint his tactical ideas and plan in a short amount of time. During his time at Chelsea, Clarke won the FA Cup, League Cup, and UEFA Cup Winners Cup between 1987 and 1998.

Germany: Below-par Bayern Munich still too good for the rest

AP Photo/Matthias Schrader
1 Comment

BERLIN (AP) Even a below-par Bayern Munich side was just too good for the rest.

Bayern’s record-extending seventh consecutive Bundesliga title confirmed the distance between the Bavarian powerhouse and its rivals after a season in which it failed to impress as before.

[ MORE: Kompany finds new/old club ]

For the first time in ten years the title race went to the last day of the season, with Niko Kovac’s side missing the chance to wrap it up a week earlier after being held to a goalless draw in Leipzig. His team wasn’t going to miss another chance as it routed Eintracht Frankfurt 5-1 to clinch a 29th German championship on Saturday.

In the end, Bayern’s 5-0 win at home over Borussia Dortmund, its closest and only challenger, on April 4 illustrated the gulf in class between the sides and effectively decided the league outcome. Bayern should have won by more after racing into a 4-0 half-time lead, but Kovac’s team eased off in the second half with Dortmund in damage-control mode.

It proved to be the title that Dortmund gave away. Lucien Favre’s side had a nine-point lead over Bayern at one stage, but buckled under the pressure of a title challenge and gave away points in games it should have won.

Dortmund developed an unfortunate tendency to concede late goals, and was frustrated in successive draws against Eintracht Frankfurt, Hoffenheim and lowly Nuremberg, which was relegated at the end of the season.

Bayern President Uli Hoeness had suggested in February that Bayern could “sacrifice the championship for one year” to give veteran players like Arjen Robben, Franck Ribery and Rafinha a worthy farewell.

“I have won more than 50 titles in my lifetime, so one or another doesn’t matter,” Hoeness said at the time.

Hoeness needn’t have worried. On Saturday, he was able to give the players a perfect sendoff, with Robben and Ribery both coming on as substitutes to score in their final Bundesliga appearances.

Beer flowed among the tears and confetti and the Bayern veterans bade their farewells and celebrated another championship – for Ribery it was a record ninth league title in 12 years at the club.

It was a happy end to a difficult season. The 36-year-old Ribery made no secret of his wish to stay at Bayern and will have heard how the 40-year-old Claudio Pizarro, who also scored Saturday, agreed a one-year extension to his contract at Werder Bremen the same day.

Kovac has had to endure ongoing speculation over his future after ambiguous comments from his superiors.

“We’ll see,” sporting director Hasan Salihamidzic said to repeated questions over Kovac’s future recently, while chairman Karl-Heinz-Rummenigge could only say he has “no problem” with Kovac.

Kovac himself said on Saturday that he was sure he would remain after receiving first-hand information from those responsible, but the lack of public endorsement from the club has done little to stop the speculation.

Even a win over Leipzig in the German Cup final next Saturday might not be enough for Kovac, who has fans’ backing but has struggled for authority at the club since Bayern went four games without a win in late September-early October.

The club lashed out at the media on Oct. 19 for “derogatory, slanderous reporting” of its poor form, while Hoeness was booed and whistled at the club’s AGM in November for the first time over sponsorship deals with Qatar, his railing against the media, and personal tirades against former players and coaches.

Amid the squabbling, Bayern has lost its aura of invincibility. The side’s meek Champions League exit to Liverpool after a 3-1 defeat at home highlighted the need to refresh the squad.

The process is already underway with World Cup winners Lucas Hernandez and Benjamin Pavard arriving from Atletico Madrid and Stuttgart, respectively, to shore up the defense. The 23-year-old Hernandez is costing a Bundesliga-record 80 million euros ($90 million) while Pavard is joining from Stuttgart for a reported 35 million ($40 million).

Bayern is also reportedly interested in Germany striker Timo Werner, while Hoeness has hinted at a host of other signings.

After strengthening in the summer, Bayern is likely to be even harder to catch for Dortmund and the rest next season.

“I know the chance was huge this season,” Dortmund captain Marco Reus said.

More AP German soccer coverage: https://apnews.com/Bundesliga and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

Ciaran Fahey on Twitter: https://twitter.com/cfaheyAP