Local hero Danny Ings leading Saints with goals, smiles

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SOUTHAMPTON — Danny Ings is on fire and has led his hometown club up the Premier League table and away from relegation trouble in recent months.

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Southampton have won six of their last nine Premier League games and in that period only Liverpool have won more points than them, as Ralph Hasenhuttl‘s side have totally transformed their season. Ings scoring over 50 percent of their goals has, obviously, played a huge part in that as he’s scored winners against Tottenham and Leicester in shock back-to-back victories.

The red-hot Saints host Wolverhampton Wanderers this Saturday (Watch live, 10 a.m. ET online via NBCSports.com) hoping to make it six wins in seven in all competitions as their amazing run of form has coincided with Ings being in the form of his life. With that in mind we went along to Southampton’s training ground in England’s New Forest National Park to speak to the man who sits second in the Premier League’s goalscoring charts.

Full disclosure, this is not the first time I’ve met or spoken to Danny Ings. Back in 2015 I was working on a longform story detailing his rise to Liverpool, via Burnley and Bournemouth, as he’d just made his England debut after breaking into Liverpool’s first team as a regular. I visited his dad Shayne and his partner Sue, and spoke to his family and others close to him as he was set to be the next big thing in English soccer at the age of 23.

Ings then ruptured his ACL in Jurgen Klopp‘s first training session as Liverpool boss. And then did it again two years later. He moved to his hometown club Southampton on an initial loan in 2018 and the $26 million deal became permanent last summer. It is the best deal Southampton have made in some time.

With 16 goals to his name in all competitions this season, and 10 in his last 11 appearances in the Premier League, he’s in the form of his life in front of his family and friends. He is dubbed “King of the Scummers” by Saints fans who revel in his two goals in a 4-0 win away at League One Portsmouth, their bitter rivals, in the League Cup earlier this season and he admitted that game, and becoming even more of a local hero, kickstarted his season.

As he smiles widely while rubbing his heavily tattooed hand across his chin, Ings is thriving on the pressure placed on him at St Mary’s, Saints’ home stadium which is only a couple of miles away from where he grew up. The pressure to deliver match tickets each week for friends is one thing, but scoring goals as the No. 9 is on another level altogether.

“I think when I knew when I was coming here, I was inviting a lot of pressure on myself,” Ings said. “To wear the number nine shirt in front of your hometown, there is a lot or pressure in that alone. But for me, because I was playing at Liverpool before that among lots of world class players who I’ve looked up to and tried to learn from, those were the guys who had more questions than I did after back-to-back knee operations. The craving of having that pressure on myself is something that I wanted for so long and coming here excites me to have that pressure because I know if I come off the pitch and I have scored a goal, it means a lot more to me.”

Not content with just scoring goals for his hometown, Ings is also one of very few players who is working hard in the classroom too. He is currently completing an economics degree and is learning to play the guitar when he switches off from being the man of the moment. Add into that his tireless work in the community with the “Danny Ings Disability Sports Project” charity he set up to help children with disabilities, and he’s doing all he can off the pitch.

On the pitch, Hasenhuttl, his boss at Saints, has labelled Ings ‘outrageous’ among other superlatives and recently said that the form of Ings is “due to him working his ass off” every day. Even on his off days. Ings spent his time off in the summer doing one thing: working his ass off.

He was in Portugal and Los Angeles and Miami training with nutritionists and performance coaches, Alex Parsons and  Nicky Holender, who worked on building up his core strength ahead of what was a hugely important season.

After three serious knee injuries spread across his time at Burnley and Liverpool, is he making up for lost time?

“For me, I’m just having fun now, my mindset in my career right now is that if I put the work in Monday to Friday, and I know I’ve done everything I’ve done to prepare for the game ahead, I know I can go out and have fun at the weekend,” Ings smiled. “I feel like people are really seeing that in my performances now, I am playing the game, I am smiling, I am happy. When I’m getting the chance I am trying to be as clinical as I can be. I’m not going to score every week, that’s normal. But if I give myself the best chance of getting into those positions, I know that I can score more goals and there are plenty more games still to come in the season.”

His return to form and fitness has led to calls for him to be called up by Gareth Southgate for the English national team in March. Ings is playing it cool when asked about a call up, but his former managers, current teammates and pundits are rallying behind the widely-loved striker who has been through tough times but has shown incredible mental strength to come out of it a better player.

With Jamie Vardy‘s retirement and Harry Kane‘s injury, a spot has opened up. Tammy Abraham, Callum Wilson and Marcus Rashford have been the other strikers in recent squads, but does Ings offer something slightly different?

“I would say we are all kind of different players in the way we play for our clubs and the way we have been over the course of our careers, really. Gareth will want a certain striker playing a certain way for him and it is all about what he wants,” Ings said. “The way I am in the system here at the club, it is all about pressing, running behind, not having too many touches on the ball. If that is something that is different to the other lads and how Gareth wants to set his team up, then yeah, I’d say it is definitely a different way for me.”

Playing for Eddie Howe at Bournemouth, Sean Dyche at Burnley, Brendan Rodgers and Klopp at Liverpool and now Hasenhuttl at Saints, the managers Ings have played for are very different and he thanks them all for developing his understanding of the game and all asking him to do different things. But the thing he has always done well is score goals. By the boatload.

Can he explain this glut of goals which has already culminated in his best-ever goalscoring season with 16 games of the season still to go? He has scored plenty of goals this season by sniffing around defenders, pouncing on mistakes and leading Saints’ now famed press under Hasenhuttl.

“It is hard to put my finger on that. Every game I want to try and create as many chances as I can and be in the right positions when the lads are providing. I go back to the momentum, momentum is key,” Ings said. “Any striker will tell you that when you are on a goal run you find yourself ending up in better positions to score goals, your focus is a lot stronger because you have the bug for scoring goals and trying to do the best you can for the team. That is the mindset I’ve been in this season. I am finding myself in great positions because the momentum is there and it is a hunger that we all have as goalscorers.”

Ings is in lethal form at the moment and you will not find one person across the Premier League who is unhappy about it. From his high-pressing to his finishing, plenty of the PL’s big boys will keep sniffing around Ings but he is keen to point out he is very happy at Southampton and isn’t thinking about anything else.

What is achievable for the rest of the season with Saints, a team who had just two wins on the board heading into late November but are now just three points off possible European qualification?

“For every club you want to achieve the maximum you can. We’ve put ourselves in a position now where we have gone further away from where we were and we are edging closer to the teams in and around those [European] places. For us, I feel like it is important we maintain our momentum,” Ings said. “Every game is so tough in the Premier League, you never know what’s going to happen. If we start thinking too far ahead, we might lose a little bit of the focus in the game that is coming at the weekend. You can see how hard the lads are working now to be the best team we can be. You can see how it is clicking and that is the way moving forward. If you look too far ahead you might lose a bit of focus and it is important we don’t do that.”

With Southampton’s fans signing his name loud and proud and hailing him as “one of our own” Ings is a happy man. Back at home, everybody wants to speak with him, everyone wants photos and everyone in the biggest city on England’s South Coast wants tickets to watch him play.

His goals and smiles have been one of the stories of the Premier League season so far as he pushes for the Golden Boot in the final months of the campaign. After his injuries and heartache in recent years, seeing Danny Ings back smiling, and scoring, is a beautiful sight for anybody who loves the beautiful game.

The fact he can now celebrate with his family by jumping on a boat and going fishing in Southampton Water hours after being the hero on the banks of the River Itchen is an added bonus. And one he clearly loves.

Hodgson vows to sign new Crystal Palace contract

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Roy Hodgson has revealed that he has been offered a contract extension to remain at Crystal Palace beyond the 2020-21 Premier League season, and also hinted that he is highly likely to accept it.

[ MORE: Mourinho: Top-four without Kane, Son would be “something incredible” ]

Following a period of turmoil and instability which saw them drop dangerously close to the relegation zone prior to his arrival in 2017, Hodgson has steadied the ship and guided the Eagles to 11th- and 12th-place finishes in his first two seasons and has them sitting just a point out of 12th with a dozen games to go this season. At no point in his tenure has Palace flirted with relegation, and that’s apparently enough to earn a new deal to remain in charge — quotes from Sky Sports:

“The club have presented me with a contract and although the chairman has been away this week I’ve had a cursory glance through it. It all looks fine to me so I am pretty certain that at some point soon we’ll sit down and get it signed.

“If I am going to stay, it will be because I believe funds will be made available because we’ve had the intention to improve the squad and the team for a while now.

“We all realize you can’t make improvements to the actual team without spending some money. But I would never make those type of demands, because you can’t make any guarantees in the transfer market.

“All you can do is have good intention and if I signed for another year, I would sign because I believed the intentions are true and that something will happen going into the next season.”

As for the transfer situation, that’s something that’ll need to be sorted out in very short order if Palace plan to maintain their current place in the PL’s hierarchy, otherwise they’ll learn a harsh — and quick — lesson about standing still while everyone else is moving forward.

Mourinho: Top-four without Kane, Son would be ‘something incredible’

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Jose Mourinho fancies himself either as a realist or a master of mind games — you be the judge, based on your own level of love or hate for the Portuguese manager — as Tottenham Hotspur embark upon their final dozen games of the 2019-20 Premier League season.

[ MORE: Premier League Preview: Chelsea v. Tottenham Hotspur ]

Speaking ahead of Saturday’s trip to Stamford Bridge where he’ll take on his former club Chelsea (Watch live, 7:30 a.m. ET on NBCSN and NBCSports.com), Mourinho attempted to put into perspective the level of heroics that will be required for Tottenham to finish in the top-four.

Perhaps he has a point, given the long-term injuries to Harry Kane and Son Heung-min, forwards who account for 20 of Spurs’ 43 PL goals this season and who will also miss the majority, if not all, of the rest of the season — quotes from the Guardian:

“Tottenham without Harry or Sonny, without one of them, doesn’t win a match since 2014. That means a lot. That means that Sonny and Harry score the majority of goals that Tottenham scores. This season was so, so negatively special that we are going to be without them both at the same time for a lot of matches.

“If we manage to finish top four it’s something incredible. Incredible achievement for the boys. So we have to give everything we have.”

As for their chances of doing, so? Well, let’s just say Mourinho is more than happy to pile the pressure onto others and divert it away from his own team, as he has routinely done throughout his career — quotes from Sky Sports:

“At this moment, Tottenham, Manchester United, Arsenal, Sheffield United, Wolverhampton, Everton — we are the underdogs.

“We have ambitions to be there but we are one, two, three points behind Chelsea, so they have an advantage to all of us. That’s obvious. It’s not a big advantage but it is an advantage.

“Chelsea, in this moment, are favorites for the fourth position, considering Leicester has nine points more at this stage of the season.”

Over the course of their next nine PL games, Spurs will face all six sides currently within five points of fourth place. They will almost certainly be without both Kane and Son for the vast majority of those critical six-pointers.

USWNT pushed in depositions: Could they beat the German men?

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Carli Lloyd was pushed over and over on differences between women and men.

[ MORE: USWNT seek over $66 million in damages from U.S. Soccer ]

“Do you think the women’s national team could beat the German men’s team?” U.S. Soccer Federation lawyer Noah Finkel asked during a Dec. 20 deposition.

“I’m not sure,” the two-time FIFA Player of the Year replied.

Finkel inquired about a 2015 email interview Lloyd conducted through her agent’s assistant with the website Sportskeeda.

“You wrote men are faster and stronger, right?” Finkel probed.

“Yeah, if you take those away, yeah, it would be a contest,” Lloyd said.

Again and again, members of the champion U.S. women’s team were pushed to detail distinctions between their sport, which they dominate, and the men’s game, where the Americans struggle.

Lawyers for the USSF are trying to show it’s OK to pay the women differently than the men because the competition is different. The sides made excerpts of depositions public in court filings Thursday night.

“The tone during depositions is reflective of the kind of condescension that many USSF officials employ when talking to the players about pay and workplace conditions,” said Molly Levinson, spokeswoman for the players, “including the plainly disrespectful and sexist attitudes from USSF and their representatives during CBA negotiations when they refused to offer anything close to equal pay.”

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The women sued last year, alleging the USSF violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Equal Pay Act of 1963 in reaching what they say is an inferior collective bargaining agreement with the women than the deal struck with the American men. They are seeking more than $66 million in damages.

The federation maintains the women have many benefits the men lack, including guaranteed salaries, health insurance, paid child-care assistance, pregnancy and parental leave, severance pay and access to a 401(k) retirement plan. Men get paid by the game and tournament, most earning the majority of their income from their club.

Reigning FIFA Player of the Year Megan Rapinoe was questioned about her response in an interview she gave to Pod Save America in which she said: “Our pay structure is different. We play different games. We’re different rankings in the world. Like, it’s just apples to oranges.”

The USSF said that from fiscal year 2009 through fiscal year 2019, the women’s national team had gross revenue of $101.3 million for 238 games, an average of $425,446, and the men grossed $185.7 million for 191 matches, an average of $972,147. The women had a $27.6 million net loss over 11 years and the men lost $3.13 million.

“The international soccer environment in which the MNT players compete is far more competitive by many measures than that in which plaintiffs compete,” the USSF said in one of its papers filed with the court. “The MNT players have lower odds of succeeding in the face of such greater competition. In short, MNT players must achieve more and/or better results against tougher competition in order to qualify for, and succeed in, tournament competition.”

Barring a settlement, the trial is scheduled to start May 5 in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles. The women’s five-year labor deal runs through 2021 while the men play under the terms of a contract that expired Dec. 31.

[ MORE: In the Mixed Zone with JPW: Episode 1 ]

During her deposition on Jan. 15, former U.S. coach Jill Ellis testified she was told the men got chartered flights at times and the women didn’t. The USSF spent about $10.7 million on hotels for the men and approximately $7.3 milllion on the women during the fiscal years 2012-20. Air travel was about $6.3 million for the women during that period and $14.3 million for the men, many of whom play in Europe. The USSF increased first- and business-class travel for the women in 2017.

Speaking during her Dec. 20 deposition, Lloyd talked about personally training with the Medford Strikers’ under-18 boys team in New Jersey.

“It’s different in the sense that men are bigger, stronger, faster. That’s their makeup. There’s no — there’s no denying science in that regard,” she said. “But I am the most skillful player there. So if you take their speed and athleticism and their strength away, it’s the same game.”

Former USSF President Sunil Gulati, speaking during a Dec. 17 deposition, used a comparison with an NBA star to point out differences.

“LeBron James doesn’t get a bonus for getting 15 points and for the Lakers finishing out of the playoffs,” he said. “The expectations for him are different based on who they’re playing against, what – who he is, what the level is.”

Premier League Preview: Chelsea v. Tottenham Hotspur

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  • Chelsea (41 points) sit 4th in PL table
  • Spurs (40) chasing, up to 5th
  • Last meeting: Spurs 0-2 Chelsea

Jose Mourinho is set to make his latest triumphant return to Stamford Bridge, this time for the first time as the manager of Tottenham Hotspur, one of Chelsea’s bitter London rivals, in the first fixture of the Premier League weekend on Saturday (Watch live, 7:30 a.m. ET on NBCSN and NBCSports.com).

Not only does the Mourinho storyline carry significant weight ahead of Saturday’s showdown at the Bridge, so too does the two sides’ increasingly tight battle for a top-four finish. As recently as Jan. 17, Chelsea enjoyed a nine-point lead on Tottenham, but the Blues’ current run of just one win from their last six PL games has seen that advantage shrink to a single point with the very real possibility of flipping two points in the opposite direction once the full-time whistle blows. On the other hand, Spurs would already be miles clear if not for dropping a combined seven points from three games against the current 12th-, 19th- and 20th-place sides in recent weeks.

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Both Chelsea and Spurs are currently enduring injury crises which have just about crippled their respective attacking units. Frank Lampard‘s side has been without Christian Pulisic since New Year’s Day, while both Callum Hudson-Odoi (hamstring) Tammy Abraham (ankle) also missed this week’s defeat to Manchester United. As for Mourinho’s selection issues, Harry Kane (hamstring) has been out since Jan. 1 and will continue to be sideline for at least two more months, and now Son Heung-min could miss the rest of the season after breaking his arm during his two-goal outing in the dramatic victory over Aston Villa last weekend. Son had scored at least one goal in each of his last five appearances (all competitions).

Spurs have scored 43 PL goals this season; Kane and Son combined for 20 between the two of them. Dele Alli, who sits just behind them with seven, has scored just once in his last seven league games and 12 games across all competitions — coincidentally, Alli’s drought began one game before Kane tore his hamstring — after enjoying a red-hot resurgence (four goals in three games) on the back of Mourinho’s appointment. To compound matters, Spurs have had 48 fewer hours to recover and prepare for Saturday’s early kickoff, with Chelsea playing Man United in league play on Monday and the north London side suffering a narrow defeat to RB Leipzig in the Champions League on Wednesday.

Injuries/suspensions

Chelsea: OUT – Christian Pulisic (groin), Callum Hudson-Odoi (hamstring), N’Golo Kante (leg), Ruben Loftus-Cheek (fitness); QUESTIONABLE: Tammy Abraham (ankle), Andreas Christensen (face)

Spurs: OUT – Harry Kane (hamstring), Son Heung-min (arm), Moussa Sissoko (knee), Juan Foyth (groin)


Projected lineups

Chelsea: Caballero — James, Zouma, Rudiger, Azpilicueta — Jorginho, Mount, Kovacic — Willian, Pedro, Abraham

Spurs: Lloris — Aurier, Sanchez, Aldeweireld, Davies — Winks, Ndombele — Lo Celso, Alli, Bergwijn — Moura


What they’re saying

Lampard, on various injured players: “Christian Pulisic is still not fit. I can’t give you an exact date. It’s a difficult injury and we’re working on that. … Tammy has trained the last two days probably at about 70 percent having not trained much recently. He’s in the squad but I’ll have to make a decision on whether he’s fit. … N’Golo is not fit. It’s a muscle injury, similar to the one he came off with against Arsenal recently. Hopefully three weeks, something around that.”

Mourinho, on returning to Stamford Bridge: “To go back to play against Chelsea is the same as to play against West Ham or Crystal Palace. It’s the same for me, exactly the same. The situation is clear, I’m here for about three months, in three months I don’t think about myself, I think about the club, I think about the players and I think about the effort that the players made to be in this position now. We were 12 points behind fourth place. I remember in my first week speaking with the players about not having targets, let’s go match after match and get as many points as possible, because if we were thinking about being 12 points behind, we would lose immediately the motivation that we needed to try to climb such a difficult mountain.”


Prediction

Throw out the injuries to some of this game’s brightest attacking stars along with the fitness and fatigue concerns, because Chelsea v. Spurs almost always delivers a thrilling, goal-filled game. There will be at least three goals, including a late winner to Chelsea.