Saints defy talent drain to make Wembley final a reality
LONDON (AP) — Southampton is one win away from proving that a club can succeed despite losing a string of top players.
The team from the England’s south coast will be at Wembley Stadium on Sunday to face Manchester United in the League Cup final, looking to win its first major trophy in 41 years.
Southampton’s journey from the third division in 2009 and back to the Premier League has been made thanks to an ability to maintain a production line of quality talent, including Gareth Bale, Theo Walcott and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain.
In more recent seasons, Southampton has sold its best players for big-money transfer fees. Liverpool raided the club for Adam Lallana, Rickie Lambert, Dejan Lovren and Nathaniel Clyne, while Luke Shaw and Morgan Schneiderlin went to Manchester United and Luke Chambers to Arsenal.
After returning to the Premier League in 2012, Southampton has shown continual improvement, first under manager Mauricio Pochettino, who built a reputation for attractive soccer before he was poached by Tottenham in 2014, and then Ronald Koeman.
Koeman continued Pochettino’s good work, steering Saints to consecutive seventh- and sixth-place finishes. The latter was its best ever in the Premier League.
But Koeman’s departure for Everton last year necessitated another change, with former Lyon coach Clude Puel appointed.
The Frenchman has endured a tough first season in charge. Southampton is 11th in the standings and Puel has come under scrutiny for his squad rotation policy and perceived brand of less attractive soccer than his predecessors. But any murmuring of discontent among the fan base has subsided with a trip to Wembley and the prospect of lifting their first major trophy since its FA Cup triumph over Manchester United in 1976.
If Southampton wins on Sunday, some of its latest talent will be on show. Tenacious midfielder James Ward-Prowse has become an established starter for the club, while academy graduate Jack Stephens has been thrown in at the back after a season-ending injury to key defender Virgil van Dijk and Jose Fonte’s sale in January to West Ham. Teenage striker Josh Sims has also impressed.
But its Saints’ overseas imports that could have the most impact against favored United.
Sofiane Boufal, the team’s record signing, has only shown glimpses of his talent since joining from Lille but is capable of producing a game-defining moment. Italian striker Manolo Gabbiadini has immediately impressed, scoring three times in his first two games since joining on transfer deadline day last month from Napoli.
Here’s a look at some other matches this weekend:
Chelsea has the opportunity to extend its lead to 11 points on Saturday, but the London club will be wary of a rejuvenated Swansea team which has won three of its last four league games to move out of the relegation zone.
Swansea held Chelsea to a 2-2 draw at home in September when the Blues needed a late goal from Diego Costa to secure a point.
Tottenham is the only other top-four team in action this weekend, but does not play until Sunday after being involved in the Europa League.
A win for Spurs over Stoke would see it move ahead of Manchester City and into second place.