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The most intense derby never played

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PORTSMOUTH — I want to start by saying I’m from Hampshire. The south coast derby between Portsmouth and Southampton is something I’ve always been aware of, as the pride of both port cities on England’s south coast is on the line for the League Cup third round tie.

Locally, it dominates discussions. These two teams go years without playing one another. This time, it has been seven years since their last meeting, before that there has been waits of seven, eight and even 10 years between games.

This rivalry has been born from a lack of action and in those lengthy gaps, many myths about dockers from each city going on strike added further fuel to the fire.

It is the most intense derby hardly ever played. The world hardly ever gets to see it. In the last 31 years the two teams have played each other 10 times. Just 10 times.

The lack of games and opportunity for bragging rights is what makes this derby one of the most intense, and special, in England. Both clubs have fallen on tough times financially in recent years and when one was in the PL, the other was languishing in the lower leagues, and vice versa.

Hampshire police are undertaking their biggest-ever operation to make sure both sets of fans are safe, with drones, helicopters and police horses all out in force. The last time these teams met in the Premier League at Portsmouth it resulted in the highest number of arrests for a PL game in history.

The fact this cup game was drawn out of hat to happen just last month, plus it is being played at night and around rush hour provides huge issues for the local police.

There is an extra crackle in the air around these games. There are extra looks over your shoulder. Many see Hampshire as an idyllic coastal area of England. It may well be most of the time, but not for this game. To use the south coast lexicon this is the Skates versus the Scummers. Yep. You read that correctly.

Here is my first-person account of being in Hampshire ahead of the game, traveling to Fratton Park and being behind-the-scenes at one of the fiercest, and less heard about, derbies in world soccer.


THE BUILD UP

After the draw was announced in late August, there has been a month of build up. A month of fans snapping back at each other. A month of both teams showcasing famous derby wins on social media.

But what is a month when tensions have been bubbling up under the surface for seven years?

The thing about this rivalry is that the cities are 18 miles apart and are pretty much independent from one another. Portsmouth is a naval port, Southampton a container and cruise ship port. It takes 20 minutes to drive from one to the other along the M27, but when you get halfway, towns like Fareham and Whiteley become somewhat of a no man’s land.

If you walk into a pub in these areas, you have no idea who supports who. There’s a scan across the bar, just like walking into a saloon in the Wild West. The tension is very, very real on a daily basis.

Unlike Man City v. Man United, Everton v. Liverpool and Arsenal v. Tottenham, there are rarely people from the same family who support either team. You are either Saints or Pompey. That’s it.

Portsmouth and Southampton should probably be chucked together as one city, just like Raleigh-Durham or Minneapolis-St. Paul in the United States. But there is absolutely no desire from locals for this to happen. None whatsoever. South Hampshire is the eighth largest urban area in the UK, and Southampton and Portsmouth are its two biggest cities.

Local councils and the UK government have tried to link the cities together to get planning and funding for the area as a whole, calling it ‘Solent City’ but there is something holding it all back. Football. And that’s just how it is. The local media outlets cover both teams, towns around both cities selling the Southern Daily Echo (Southampton) and the Portsmouth News. For the days leading up to this game, legends of both clubs have been fanning the flames and talking about past glory.

National radio and TV stations have been debating just how big this game is, and where it ranks in terms of UK and European rivalries. But unless you’re from Hampshire or the South Coast, nobody has a real sense of just how big this is. That is the beauty of it.

For this game, the referees have been told that players subbed off do not have to adhere to the new FIFA laws that they should exit the pitch at the nearest possible spot. Due to fears over their safety, players will have to walk off at the halfway line.

“I think people who have never been to one of those games and never sampled the atmosphere would probably look at it and kind of say ‘Oh, it’s just a little south coast derby, it’s nothing important’, but to the two sets of fans it’s an incredibly important fixture,” Southampton legend Matt Le Tissier said before the game.

Pompey boss Kenny Jackett knows his team are the underdogs (they currently sit fourth from bottom in the third tier and Pompey fans are singing week in, week out for him to be fired) but he also knows playing at home will provide a huge advantage. He smelt an upset.

“Of course we can [cause an upset],” Jackett said. “You can get things right on the day. Particularly with it being a home game, I think that really helps us.”

Saints’ Austrian boss Ralph Hasenhuttl, in his first full season as a manager in England, has been told for the last month just how big this game is. After a less than impressive start to the PL season, Hasenhuttl’s reign as Saints boss will likely be deemed a success if he can do two things: 1) Keep them in the Premier League. 2) Beat Portsmouth.

“Sure you can be a legend. It doesn’t matter if you are a League One team or a Premier League team. In that moment it’s not interesting. It’s about this one game and you can be a big hero if you decide it,” Hasenhuttl said.

Players from both teams talked about the importance of the game, but talk really wouldn’t do it justice.


THE GAME

Heading to Portsmouth on a train from London on the day of the game, Waterloo station, London’s busiest, has numerous trains to Southampton and Portsmouth every hour. But again, both cities are close but kept separate.

Lads in Pompey shirts hung off the train at each stop down to the coast, a beer in hand. Any Saints fans were well disguised.

A train to Portsmouth does not pass through Southampton, and vice versa, for a very good reason. That reason was about to be hammered home.

Pompey fans on the train were watching videos on social media of the police and home fans gathering near the entrance to the stadium.

“Saints haven’t won at Fratton Park for 35 years. That is a long, long time,” said one. “Yeah, but that will end tonight,” said a pessimistic fan. Some Pompey fans were even placing bets on Saints to win.

“I think it is good to play a local rival,” said a child dressed in a Pompey kit to his father. While two Pompey fans sat to one side were getting frustrated by train delays due to signaling problems, they were skeptical. “This is because they’re bringing in the scum. That’s it. This is going to make everyone agitated.”

The walk to the stadium from the station was terrifying. You can only describe it as entrenched, unconscious hatred. This had an edge to it. It is instinctive for these fans to hate one another.

Riot police trucks lined the route to the stadium, police helicopters were overhead, drones in the sky, it was all going on. Portsmouth fans were shown running up and down the streets trying to attack police horses (one of them punching a horse and then getting the expected treatment from officers) and it was all getting a bit out of hand before the game.

It was rumored a small group of Saints fans were caught up in the train chaos and were late to arrive, and the police were doing their best to separate the fans.

Here was the Song of choice belted out by Pompey’s fans:

“He’s only a poor little scummer. His face is all tattered and torn, He made me feel sick, So I hit him with a brick, And now he don’t sing any more.”

Portsmouth fans couldn’t believe a ‘bubble system’ wasn’t being implemented to keep the Saints fans safe.

“There will still be a war. The police are playing a game, ‘which copper can catch the most hooligans.’ It is crazy.”

Another discussion broke out: “You should kick a scummer, or punch one.” Then a nice addition arrived: “I’ll hit one with a brick. That will sort them out.”

Rain pouring down. The wind howling off the English Channel. Floodlights on. An apt scene was set at Fratton Park seconds before kick off.

Fratton Park is one of the oldest, and tightest, grounds in England. It is an intimidating place for any team, let alone their bitter rivals, to visit. It is old school to the extreme.

As Mike Oldfield’s Portsmouth song roared over the speakers, you felt as if you had been transported to the 18th century and were about to leave for the high seas on a tall ship.

The game itself started superbly for the home team. Pompey should have been at least 2-0 up early on. John Marquis hit the post. Brett Pitman had a shot well tipped over by Alex McCarthy and Saints somehow scrambled the ball off the line from the corner as McCarthy juggled with the ball on the floor. It was chaos.

Then, Saints scored with their first chance of the game. Local lad, Danny Ings, first had a shot beaten away and then turned superbly before curling home a beauty to make it 1-0. Saints should have doubled their lead when Ings was denied by MacGillivray, then Hojbjerg had a shot cleared on the line.

Lifelong Saints fans Ings scored a second just before half time and celebrated in front of the home supporters and coins and other objects flew the way of Southampton’s players.

In the away end red flares were plentiful.

Saints were in charge but Pompey, and their crowd, would not go away. Literally.

Home fans chucked the ball at Saints players who were trying to take throw ins. Chants of “Blue Army!” rang out and “Scummers, Scummers!” at regular intervals.

Southampton’s 2,000 fans behind the goal heaped praise on Ings, “he’s one of our own” and the chants got louder and louder.

In the second half the home fans continued to sing and their players continued to come close to pulling a goal back.

Multiple crosses flashed across the goal and both sets of fans were going through their full repertoire of anti-Pompey and Saints songs. Each set of fans sung “there’s only one team in Hampshire” proudly.

“Your support is f***** s***!” sang the Pompey fans as the rain poured down. That was followed by “You’re going home in a Pompey ambulance” and “You dirty scummers, we will see you outside!”

The battle lines had been drawn for the tight streets outside of Fratton Park.

Second half goals from Cedric Soares and Nathan Redmond put the game beyond doubt for Southampton, as their fans celebrated wildly at the final whistle.

It was Saints’ first win at Pompey since 1984. My word, 35 years is a long time to wait for a win at your bitter rivals. And this was their biggest ever win at Portsmouth.

”Four nil in your own back yard!” was the taunting chant from Saints’ fans who had to wait in the stadium for close to an hour after full time as the police cleared the nearby streets of Pompey fans.

Portsmouth’s fans were in great voice too, and no matter how the game turned out on the pitch, the atmosphere off the pitch was right up there with the best. The whole occasion lived up the hype and the weather, the game and the fans all combined to deliver a special night.

This game may not be played for another seven years, and it if isn’t, that’s a shame. It needs to happen more often, but maybe you can get too much of a good thing.

Hasenhuttl was jubilant at the final whistle.

His first tase of the south coast derby has him hooked.

“We will not forget this evening, and the fans too. It was a fantastic atmosphere until the end and to score four goals here is fantastic. It is more than only reaching the next round. It is about reaching the hearts of the fans,” Hasenhuttl said. ‘You could feel the tradition that is in this derby. I think I have never had such an atmosphere in a stadium so far and I have seen a lot in my entire footballing career. It was a very special game for me also.”

Danny Ings added: “It’s a crazy feeling. I’m very fortunate to have played in some big derbies but for me personally, this one tops it. When the draw was made I couldn’t wait for the fixture. When I got the nod to play I just couldn’t wait to step over the white lines and do my best for the club.”

More of this please, Pompey and Saints.

The south coast derby is a gem which teases us every now and then. We want more.

Of course, the intensity bubbles over and there were reports of scuffles after the game, police having to move in and opposition fans clashing in the streets as the rain pelted down on England’s south coast.

If you ever get the chance, one of these derbies at St Mary’s or Fratton Park is a must.

USMNT looks toward Olympic qualifying

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NEW YORK (AP) USMNT head coach Gregg Berhalter will be looking toward Olympic soccer qualifying when the senior national team plays Costa Rica on Saturday in an exhibition at Carson, California.

Thirteen of the 22 players on the American roster are eligible for Olympic qualifying, which is limited to players under 23. The U.S. men failed to reach the 2012 and 2016 Olympics, and they are in a difficult qualifying group that includes Mexico and Costa Rica.

“It’ll be nice to give them an opportunity to perform in front of a crowd in a real international game,” Berhalter said during a telephone conference call on Monday.

Twelve players have no previous international experience. The U.S. has used 74 players in 30 matches since the 2017 loss at Trinidad and Tobago that ended the Americans’ streak of seven straight World Cup appearances, and 36 players have made debuts: 24 under interim coach Dave Sarachan and 12 under Berhalter, who was hired in December 2018.

“We think this age group is talented for the Olympic age group and we’re excited to see how they navigate through the qualification process and then eventually build the group for the Olympics” Berhalter said.

Olympic qualifying runs from March 20-30 and the U.S. will be coached by Jason Kreis. Since clubs are not required to release players to under-23 teams, top Americans Christian Pulisic, Weston McKennie, Tyler Adams, Josh Sargent and Sergino Dest are not likely to be available. Major League Soccer starts Feb. 29, and its coaches may be reluctant to provide players.

“We’re going to need a lot of cooperation from Major League Soccer, and I know that’s difficult given the early stage of their season,” Berhalter said.

If the U.S. does qualify for the Olympics, it would be able to add three players over the age limit. But clubs could decline to release players.

“It would be nice to field our strongest team in the Olympics. We’re just not sure that’s going to happen,” Berhalter said.

Veterans on the roster this weekend include forwards Gyasi Zardes and Paul Arriola, defender Aaron Long and midfielder Sebastian Lletget. Goalkeeper Bill Hamid could make his first appearance since a June 2018 exhibition at Ireland.

On other topics:

-Berhalter did not sound overly concerned about Pulisic’s adductor injury. The Chelsea midfielder has not played since Jan. 1 and is not likely to return until Feb. 17 at the earliest. “He played a lot of games in a short period of time over Christmas,” Berhalter said. “He’s a young player playing at an extremely competitive level and it takes a physical toll on your body. And him coming to terms with that is something that’s normal for the process of adapting.”

-On the best position for Adams, who has appeared at right back and right wing for RB Leipzig: “We see him primarily as a central midfielder. We always have seen him as a central midfielder. But we know that when we when we need to be flexible, he can play that position, as well. We think right now the right back position is filled with depth, and he’ll be most suited in our system in central midfield.”

-On the possibility of Long transferring from the New York Red Bulls to West Ham: “It obviously could be a potential big change in where he’s competing and what level he’s playing at. … That would be a step up for him.”

-Jesus Ferreira, a Colombian-born forward who received U.S. citizenship last month, may not be eligible to play this weekend pending the completion of paperwork.

More AP soccer: https://apnews.com/apf-Soccer and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

Tottenham sign Lo Celso, close in on Bergwijn

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Tottenham Hotspur have signed Giovani Lo Celso from Real Betis, triggering a clause which turns his loan into a permanent transfer.

Lo Celso, 23, arrived on loan this summer and after injuries disrupted his first few months in England he has settled in very nicely in recent weeks.

The Argentine playmaker has signed a contact through 2025 and is the direct replacement for Christian Eriksen who is Inter Milan bound.

Spurs are also closing in on a deal for Steven Bergwijn as PSV Eindhoven left the winger out of training and he has flown to London for a medical.

Bergwijn, 22, is a rising star in the Dutch Eredivisie and according to our partners at Sky Sports he will join Tottenham for $32.5 million, rising to $35 million with add-ons.

With Christian Eriksen’s move to Inter Milan set to be completed on Tuesday, Spurs chairman Daniel Levy has brought in a younger, promising attacking player to help freshen up the attack alongside Lo Celso.

Tottenham have got their dominoes in order and now they are ready to fall.

Bergwijn is highly-rated and scored 16 goals in a struggling PSV side last season and has six goals to his name in 29 appearances in all competitions so far in 2019-20. He has recently broken into the Dutch national team and is regarded as one of the top young wing talents in Europe.

This is exactly the kind of transfer Spurs need to be making. Mourinho loves to have tricky and direct wingers in his teams to feed off a central striker and Bergwijn is on the up and is hungry to prove himself in England. It makes total sense with Eriksen on his way out for about $22 million, so it could be yet another shrewd bit of business from Levy and Co.

Aside from Bergwijn there is a push for a striker to arrive on a short-term deal with Harry Kane out injured until April, but given the form of Heung-Min Son, Lucas Moura and Dele Alli in attack, perhaps Mourinho and Levy will resist the urge to bring in a short-term solution up top.

Krzysztof Piatek, Willian Jose, Edinson Cavani and many others have been mentioned as potential stop gaps for Kane but the fluid movement of Son, Moura and Alli could be the way to go in attack. With Bergwijn added to the mix alongside the January loan addition of midfielder Gedson Fernandes, Spurs are getting younger and things have been freshened up quite nicely by Mourinho.

All things considered, not a bad window for Spurs, as they sit six points off the top four with 14 games to go and are still in the FA Cup and now have a plan without Kane for the UEFA Champions League knockout rounds and the final months of the season.

Solskjaer coy on Man United transfers; Alexis to return

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Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was coy when asked about possible transfer for Manchester United in the final days of the January window and revealed that Alexis Sanchez will return this summer.

Speaking ahead of their League Cup semifinal second leg against rivals Man City on Wednesday (City lead 3-1 from the first leg), Solskjaer was asked about a possible deal for Bruno Fernandes and if United will do any other business before the window shuts on Friday.

“I haven’t got any updates for you on transfers, I think it was a wasted question,” Solskjaer told a reporter. “I haven’t got anything to say now.”

Pushed further about what type of players United could sign, Solskjaer was asked if the club are now ‘thinking outside of the box’ amid reports they could sign strikers Odion Ighalo and Islam Slimani.

Solskjaer bemoaned the January window and how difficult it is to do business and shocked everyone as he revealed that Sanchez will be welcomed back with open arms in the summer when his loan with Inter Milan ends.

“Well, we’ve got players here we are working hard to get back and if there is something out there then the club are pursuing that and looking at it. Of course, it is the difficult window, it has always been,” Solskjaer said. “I can’t remember how many good ‘uns or deals we’ve brought in January. Henrik [Larsson] was good, Nemanja [Vidic] and Patrice [Evra] were two good ones. Henrik as a loan. Alexis… It is hard because some of the clubs don’t want to lose their players. Alexis will come back in the summer and prove you all wrong.”

“At the moment it doesn’t look like it, no,” Solskjaer added when asked about outgoings, while he added that Nemanja Matic may not be fit for the League Cup semifinal at Man City and Marcos Rojo is very unlikely to be sold.

It seems likely that United will not do any business in the final days of the window as Solskjaer looked frustrated but put on a brave face.

United are said to be $26 million short of matching Sporting Lisbon’s valuation of Fernandes and even though the Portuguese playmaker would make a big difference for them in the final months of the Premier League season, it seems unlikely the player they’ve chased since last summer will arrive at Old Trafford.

This news will no doubt be frustrating for United but given Mason Greenwood‘s recent displays, perhaps Solskjaer will place extra faith in the 18-year-old to fill the void left by Marcus Rashford over the next six weeks or so. It is either that or bring in a more experienced striker on loan for the rest of the season and that doesn’t seem to slot in with United’s new philosophy of developing young British talent.

Chelsea issue positive Pulisic injury update

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Chelsea have issued a positive injury update on Christian Pulisic as the USMNT star could be back quicker than expected from an adductor injury.

Blues boss Frank Lampard told Pro Soccer Talk last week that Pulisic would likely be back in mid-February during the latter part of the winter break.

[ MORE: Premier League schedule

However, via the club website Lampard has now suggested that Pulisic could have an outside chance of playing some part in their huge top four battle against Leicester City this Saturday (Watch live, 7:30 a.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com).

“Aiding that push in the not-too-distant future will be Christian Pulisic, who Lampard thinks will be back in training in the middle of the week although the Leicester City game on Saturday might come too soon,” Chelsea revealed.

This is really good news for Pulisic and Chelsea as the west London club have missed his creativity in the final third in recent games against Newcastle United (a defeat) and Arsenal (a home draw when playing against 10 men for over an hour).

Chelsea admitted they’ve missed Pulisic as the likes of Callum Hudson-Odoi and Willian were shut down rather easily out wide in their disappointing recent results.

“Yeah, a game like today (against Arsenal) could have been a good one where he would have been helpful for us because he was playing well for a patch. But other people have to stand up in those situations,” Lampard said.

Pulisic has been out since Jan. 3 with what Lampard described as a “nasty” injury to his adductor in training and that injury blow came after Pulisic had a slight hamstring issue over the festive period.

In his first season in the Premier League Pulisic has scored five goals and added two assists, with the Pennsylvanian native taking time to settle but he’s now become an integral part of the Chelsea squad.

He has something different compared to Lampard’s other attackers and his time out injured has actually reinforced just how important he is to this Chelsea team.