Europa League

Southampton FC vs AC Sparta Praha: My starting XI

So, here we are again. Southampton Football Club are back in the Europa League, but this time, they come bearing a new manager, new players, and the desire to right the wrongs of last season. With the first game of Southampton’s Europa campaign kicking off tonight, I gave my view regarding who I believe should make the starting XI against Sparta Praha. 

Fraser Forster – given the confidence that the 6ft 7-inch giant installs in the defence, selecting anyone else would cause outrage. 

Cedric Soares – at times like this, playing Pied would have been a very useful option; but with the Frenchman out for up to nine months, Cedric has to start again. In addition, It seems that Martina hasn’t impressed Puel either.

Jose Fonte – despite a number of mistakes in recent showings, Fonte is our leader at the back and simply must start in such an important game for the club.

Virgil Van Dijk – for me, Van Dijk is without doubt Southampton’s best defender. Keeping the Fonte and Van Dijk partnership is key.

Ryan Bertrand – despite only just returning from injury, Bertrand’s impact on the left flank is too strong to possibly drop him. We must start the Europa League as we mean to go on, even if that means considering the possibility of starting Targett this Sunday.

Oriol Romeu – the Spaniard was my man of the match against Arsenal last weekend and we must reward him for such a passionate performance. Romeu will be up for this game and provide that much-needed protection in front of the backline.

Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg – after being dropped to the bench last weekend at the Emirates, Hojbjerg will now be raring to continue his exciting start to life at Southampton. From what we’ve seen so far, Hojbjerg ensures that the midfield continues to take up a positive and expressive approach to the game. He’s a player that places the fans on the edge of their seat.

James Ward-Prowse – the England U21 captain has not only been rested well since the International break, but he has also shown promising signs that he can form a partnership alongside Hojbjerg in central midfield. Firstly, I would start Ward-Prowse over Davis as he has so far struggled to adapt to this new central midfield role – this has seen Davis get dragged out of position on numerous occasions and prove wasteful in deeper areas. However, whilst I believe that we would currently be a stronger XI with Clasie starting, the Dutchman has recently been showing fine form and I wouldn’t want to burn him out. Small and effective use of rotation is crucial when playing on both Thursday and Sunday

Dusan Tadic – he is not only our most creative spark, but he’s also coming off the back of scoring against Arsenal last weekend (albeit with the help of Petr Cech) – we can’t afford to bench a player who gives us our bench chance of carving open the opposition defence.

Nathan Redmond – whilst Redmond has so far been lacking the drive and aggression needed from a forward, I believe that It would be idiotic to start him on the bench. In European football, those tight margins matter all the more and the extra pace/movement that Redmond provides will be key if we go on to win. He’s also one of the few players that we possess who can naturally operate in the channels too.

Shane Long – it goes without saying that Long had a shocker against Arsenal last weekend after missing three fantastic opportunities, but to tell the truth, I think that Long has to start again. Not because of form and certainly not because he deserve’s it right now (he doesn’t), but because he is the only striker in Southampton’s ranks who understands Puel’s system. Long has been well below par over the start of this Premier League season, but provided he can at least carry out his demands in the system, the performances of others will be raised. 

Europa League: A low-down on Southampton’s opponents

On the 2nd of January 2016, Southampton travelled 200 odd miles across the country for their match against newly-promoted Norwich City. At this point of the season, Southampton had currently won only one match from seven, including a draw against Aston Villa and a loss to Stoke City, both of which coming at home. Saints looked strong favourites for the clash against the Canaries despite their current barren run, but Norwich were coming into this game off the back of a historic victory away to Man United. The contrast of confidence in both squads showed as Norwich edged the match 1-0 with an Alexander Tettey goal, three minutes after Victor Wanyama received his second red card of the season. After the loss, Saints slumped down to 13th in the table, placing them only seven points off the relegation zone. However, from this point on in the season, Ronald Koeman’s men turned their season around.

This fine form coincided with the return of Fraser Forster, who achieved six clean sheets in a row on the Saints’ march up the league table, alongside Shane Long’s inspired goal scoring form. Southampton picked up memorable victories at Old Trafford and achieved the comeback of all comebacks at home to Liverpool –  it still gives me the chills just thinking of Sadio Mane’s second goal!

From that loss against Norwich, Saints only lost three games in the remaining 18 fixtures, winning the last four. In the last four weeks of the season, Saints had fixtures against Manchester City and Tottenham Hotspurs left to play. At this point, Saints had managed to salvage their season and were in the thick of the fight for a spot in Europe next season. A Sadio Mane hat trick sealed all three points against Manchester City in a 4-2 home victory. Then a Steven Davis double a week later against Spurs saw Saints take three points from White Hart Lane for the first time in 12 years. This meant that going into the final game of the season against Crystal Palace, Saints had to better West Ham’s result against Stoke and hope that Manchester United lose at home to Bournemouth.

As it turned out, Southampton came out 4-1 winners against former manager Alan Pardew and his Palace side, and to make things even better, West Ham threw away a 1-0 lead to lose 2-1 at Stoke. This guaranteed a place in the Europa League qualifying round for the boys in red and white. From here, the match at Old Trafford was abandoned due to a bomb scare and when the match was replayed two days later, Manchester United won the match 3-1. The end result? Southampton had finished their season in 6th place on 63 points – their highest ever Premier League finish and points total. A week later, the FA Cup final saw the Red Devils seal a 2-1 win in extra time over Crystal Palace to lift the historic trophy. As a result, Southampton were entered straight into the group stages.

On the 26th of August, the eagerly anticipated draw was finally going to take place, and Southampton were amongst some of Europe’s top clubs. Southampton were placed into pot three, so a difficult draw was potentially on the cards. As the draw was being made, all Southampton fans were glued to their screens. The draw was dragged out and Saints fans had endured 10 groups being drawn, A to J without seeing our name. As group K was being drawn, we were all hoping our name will be plucked from a ball. First in the group – Inter Milan. Second team into the group – Sparta Prague. The third team – Southampton Football Club. Finally, we saw our lads placed into the Europa League group stages, with the fourth team to join group K being Hapoel Be’er Sheva.

But, who exactly are the teams that we will face (no matter how big or small) and who should we look out for?

More than just a game

After yet another record-breaking year, Southampton are currently preparing to reap the rewards of their sixth place Premier League finish last season –  the opportunity to impress in the Europa League group stages.

The achievement was celebrated wildly on the South coast, and understandably so given that the club have yet another opportunity to go toe to toe with some of Europe’s biggest and greatest names. To the players of last season, it’s also seen as a chance to right the wrongs of their premature exit last time out.

After the disappointment of getting knocked out by an inferior FC Midtjylland team, many thought that this was the end of our European hopes, and that our chance to really make ourselves known amongst Europe’s elite football clubs had gone. Matters were made worse by the fact that had we defeated FC Midtjylland, Southampton would’ve been drawn alongside Italian giants Napoli in the group stage – this left fans wondering what could have been had we qualified and faced players like Gonzalo Higuaín.

But, despite all this, the 2015/16 season saw Southampton better their league position for the 7th year in a row. A remarkable achievement given the fact that we were continually written off and tipped for relegation by many “experts.” This trend of selling players, being written off and over-achieving has been repeated and repeated until we found ourselves in 6th place, and now, we have our reward. Just last week, the club was drawn into group K alongside Israeli Premier League champions Hapoel Be’er Sheva, the Czech First League runners-up Sparta Prague, and Italian super club Inter Milan: the 9th most successful football club in the world.

For many (myself included) to watch Southampton play at the San Siro against Inter Milan in a competitive football match is unimaginable. It’s something that I thought until recently,  we as Saints fans could only dream about. Whilst growing up, Inter Milan was always one of the superpowers of world football, and is it any surprise when they held such great players like Ibrahimovic, Figo, Eto’o, Ronaldo, Baggio and Matthaus amongst others.

Yet despite the history and power behind Inter Milan, we – Southampton Football Club – have found ourselves in this unbelievable position. This draw has acted as a reward to the fans, staff, players and owners. It’s rewarded those who shunned interest from other clubs to stay with us, and it has rewarded the fans whose support never wavered.  

This draw is for the fans who saw us hit the bottom of League 1 with minus 10 points, for those who made the Tuesday travels to Rochdale, for those who stood proudly at Old Trafford just last season, and for those who watched our relegation fixture against Manchester United in 2005.

On top of this, it signifies the influence of the Liebherr family who saved us from liquidation. When they took over, Southampton were on -10 points in the 3rd tier of English football. That year, we finished the season with a 3-1 win at home to Southend and gained a respectable 7th place finish. 12 days later, Inter Milan would beat Bayern Munich 2-0 to win the Champions League final with the likes of Diego Milito, Javier Zanetti and Wesley Sneijder all at their disposal. Yet 7 years down the line these two teams find themselves playing against each other in a competitive match. Imagine telling someone that after Southampton’s 1-1 draw against Millwall on the opening day of the 09/10 League 1 season.

For me, such an achievement epitomises everything great about our beloved club. This achievement was made possible by the unrivalled training facilities that we possess, the trust in our youth, the mysterious black box, those who know what it means to be a Saint, and every last player that has had the pleasure of putting on that red and white shirt.

But regardless of these achievements and the significance of it all, we have a game to play and a trophy to win. We aren’t in this tournament to make up the numbers, nor will we treat it any less than any other game. We aren’t going to the San Siro for a holiday, we’re going there to get 3 points, and along the way, we will have 5000 loyal Saints fans singing  around all four corners of the 80,000 seater stadium

Win, lose or draw, this will be one of the greatest nights in our clubs history. Many haven’t seen us come up against a team of this calibre before in a competitive match, and whether we will again remains to be seen. But to see our very own youth academy graduates walk through the infamous San Siro tunnel to play on that turf, standing where the greats of both Milan clubs have stood, you can only be proud of our achievements. And who’s to say this is the end of Southampton’s rise? we are fine being the underdogs and we embrace going against the odds. We’ve done the unthinkable before, why not do it again?

Part one: Here we go again

As Saints fans, we are used to a rollercoaster ride of a summer. But this year, we thought it would be different – after key players Fraser Forster and Virgil Van Dijk signed new five-year deals, many Southampton fans were hopeful of a peaceful summer where they can relax by the pool and not frantically refresh their Twitter feed every ten seconds. But our very own lying Dutchman clearly had other views…

We were almost guaranteed a less anxious summer when Director of Football Les Reed said at the player awards “this summer will be much quieter than the previous two.” However, with Everton sacking Roberto Martinez, they stated their intent to pinch our great Ronald Koeman almost immediately. He wouldn’t, would he? Surely Everton is nothing more than a sideways move, if not backwards, especially as Koeman has shown enough to us all to suggest that one day he could manage a club like Arsenal or even Barcelona. Given that Koeman has a year remaining on his contract and the fact that he’s repeatedly stated that he will honour the final year, fans were simply rejecting the Everton rumours in confidence that Koeman is a man of his word. Well, that’s what we all thought anyway. It appears that through a mixture of employing a new agent and the possibility of great financial gain, Koeman’s head has been turned. Through doing so, Koeman has lied to the players and fans who have sung his name so loudly over the past two seasons – I must add that these are the same fans who were behind Koeman every step of the way during last seasons barren winter run. It’s an undeniable fact that Koeman has given us our two best seasons in the Premier League to date, but his departure and the way in which he’s conducted himself has left us with a very bitter taste to remember him by.

So, with Koeman all but gone, who do Southampton fans look toward now to take the club forward once again?

Eddie Howe

Bournemouth manager Eddie Howe is my preferred choice to take control at St Mary’s. Howe’s philosophy of an attractive passing game will suit our style which we’ve become so accustomed to. His track record at Bournemouth is there for all to see after guiding them from League Two to the Premier League.

When Howe took over at Bournemouth in 2008, he guided the club out of the relegation zone despite a 17 point deduction at the start of the year. The following season, Howe won promotion to League One even with a transfer embargo looming over the club. However, Howe did move to Burnley in 2011 leaving Bournemouth with a 50% win ratio, but the move proved unsuccessful for him as Burnley finished 8th and then 13th the following year. He left in 2012 touting “personal reasons” for his departure.

No need to panic though Saints fans, every manager has a bad spell at a club where it doesn’t quite seem to click. And with Howe only needing to making a short journey across the South Coast, there’s no reason for him to be feeling homesick. Since his departure from Burnley, Howe moved back to Bournemouth and during his returning season he won promotion again for the Cherries finishing second behind Doncaster Rovers. Bournemouth had a largely successful first season in the Championship, with his side having a late charge for the playoffs. However, they didn’t quite make it, finishing 10th – six points off a play-off place. Howe used this experience to his advantage and Bournemouth won promotion to the Premier League for the first time in their history the following year. With a victory over Charlton on the last day of the season coinciding with Watford’s draw to Sheffield Wednesday, the Cherries won the Championship title. Howe has picked up individual accolades for the tremendous work he’s done with Bournemouth, including ‘Manager of the Decade’ at the Football League awards. To many, Bournemouth looked certain to be relegated back into the Championship over their first year in England’s top division, but oh how wrong they were to be. Bournemouth had an unbelievable first season in the Premier League. The Cherries finished 16th and the club was all but safe weeks before the final game of the season –  five points clear of the relegation zone to be exact. In terms of five-year plans, Howe is the perfect candidate for me as his young age compared to other managers allows him to give us longevity. He’ll also be able to grow alongside the club due to the shared ideologies in how football should be played.

Andre Villas-Boas

Another candidate to replace Koeman could be the former Chelsea and Tottenham boss, Andre Villas-Boas. AVB gained his coaching badges and licenses through a discussion with Sir Bobby Robson after a 16-year-old Villa Boas lived in the same apartment block as the former England manager, when Robson was working at Porto. From gaining his UEFA Pro License he then became assistant manager to Jose Mourinho at Porto, Chelsea, and Inter Milan. AVB then gained his first managerial role at Academica in the Primeira Liga after leaving Mourinho’s backroom staff. He displayed great results at Academica with an attractive style of play. As a result, he moved to Porto, and his impact was immediate, winning the Portuguese Super Cup against bitter rivals, Benfica. Villas-Boas then went a season unbeaten in the league and winning the title by more than 20 points. During that season, his side only conceded 13 goals. His Porto side then went on to win the Portuguese Cup and the Europa League, the tournament that we will be competing in later this year.

Due to his incredible success at Porto, Villas-Boas was appointed Chelsea manager in 2011, leaving Porto with an 87.23 % win ratio. However, his time at Chelsea was cut short after falling out with senior players Frank Lampard, Michael Essien, and Ashley Cole. This called Abramovic to question his tactics and team selection for the match. As results didn’t improve and with Chelsea slipping out of the top four, Villas-Boas was relieved of his managerial duties.

AVB then replaced Harry Redknapp at Tottenham for the 2012/13 season. During this season, he picked up two “manager of the month” awards and guided Spurs into the last 16 of the Europa League. Spurs narrowly missed out on a Champions League spot to rivals Arsenal on the last day of the season. AVB reportedly turned down offers from PSG and Real Madrid to stay at Spurs. With Gareth Bale being sold to Madrid for £85 million, Spurs brought in a whole host of new additions. Not every player seemed to make the step up and a lack of squad harmony ensued. After a 6-0 defeat to Man City and a 5-0 defeat to Liverpool, Andre Vilas Boas left the club by mutual consent. He left Tottenham with the highest win percentage of any Spurs manager in the Premier League with 55%.

Since leaving Spurs, AVB has managed Russian League side, Zenit St Petersburg. He was the first manager in Russian Premier League history to win his first six matches in charge. He then led Zenit to their fifth league title in his second year in charge. In his final season in charge, Villas-Boas won the Russian cup and finished top of the Champions League group.

I personally believe that it would be a coup for the club to appoint AVB. After failure in the Europa League last season, all of our players are desperate to right our wrongs and prove that we are worthy of being on the European stage – and it is here that AVB can prove to be valuable due to his experience of winning the competition. He certainly hasn’t fallen short domestically either, making the Portuguese boss all the more suitable for Southampton Football Club.

That’s my view, but who would you like to see in the dugout next season for Southampton? Be sure to let us know @freshsaints

 

2016: One damn good year for Southampton Football Club

As far as the 2015/16 season was concerned, Southampton fans had labelled the campaign a write off by late December. The club had seen their French sweetheart depart for Manchester United, had crushed their own dreams of success in the Europa League in the most unattractive fashion possible, and were sitting in 12th place as they entered the new year. But, just five months later, those troubles seem a world away, and maybe as Southampton fans, we should have known better. 2016 is proving to be quite the year for Southampton Football Club.

And it all began with the luck of the Irish(man) – Shane Long. As 2015 was coming to a close, Southampton fans were growing tired of the turgid football, low intensity and predictable play that had oddly, become a recurring issue under Koeman in the winter months. But with just one change, those issues were no more. With Shane Long’s introduction to the side on December 26th – Southampton’s 4-0 win over Arsenal – Southampton put into practice the hardest thing to do in the simple game that we all love; play simple football. Since then, Long has surpassed 10 goals in a Premier League season for the first time in his career, Southampton have a newfound fluidity up top, and they have returned to defending with the first line of defence; the attack. In just six months, Shane Long has transformed his title from super-sub, into one of the first names on Koeman’s team-sheet.

But whilst fans enjoyed the free-flowing football on offer, there stood one more problem, and that problem was standing between the sticks. To me, the goalkeeper is the most important player on the pitch, and Southampton’s early-season shot-stopping predicaments illustrated that perfectly. A strong goalkeeper is the root of the defences confidence, so when a weak link is placed under such pressure, don’t be surprised if it all comes crashing down. In contrast, when you place a strong keeper behind the back-line – such as Fraser Forster – the defence flourishes. Prior to the big man returning, Stekelenburg averaged 1.42 saves per goal and claimed just 35 catches in 17 appearances. In Forster’s 17 appearances over 2016, he has recorded an average rate of 2.75 saves per goal and claimed 61 catches. Fraser Forster’s statistics are vastly superior to Stekelenburg’s, and consequently, results have been prominent too. Without Forster’s return to the starting XI, I firmly believe that we wouldn’t be in such a promising position.

Soon after Forster’s return, Southampton’s attack was about to receive yet another injection of firepower in the January transfer window. With the £4 Million signing of Charlie Austin, fans of all clubs were labelling the deal the bargain of the window. And whilst the forward has only scored one goal since joining the club (what a goal it was at that) Austin has the perfect opportunity to prepare both physically and mentally over pre-season. Simply look to Shane Long as hope for what Austin could achieve with Southampton after a strong pre-season, continual hard work and remaining patient for his chance to arise. There is no doubting Austin’s ability, and at such a price, he is yet another positive for Southampton’s prosperous year so far.

Squad depth is a facet needed in any succesful side, providing the opportunity for players to rest, suspensions to be covered and competition for positions. Four years since Southampton’s return to the Premier League, this has been acheieved. After Jay Rodriguez’s hard fought battle with injury, I remember looking down at our team sheet in complete awe of the progress made as a squad. There sat on our bench on April 9th, 2016, was Jay Rodriguez, Cedric Soares, Oriol Romeu, Charlie Austin, Maya Yoshida and Maarten Stekelenburg. In previous years, Southampton have tailed off at the end of the season due to jaded physical conditions in the squad. But in 2016, Southampton have been able to take up the unprecedented act of injecting first-team quality players into the game from the bench – it’s no coincidence that with this wide array of options to change the game and keep players fresh, Southampton have beaten both Manchester City and Tottenham Hotspur’s in their final run-in. It’s hard to see Ronald Koeman accepting anything other than making this squad bigger, better and stronger this summer.

Finally, we come to an act that shows all Premier League Clubs that Southampton Football Club means business. On the 7th of March, Southampton tied down players player and fans player of the season, Virgil Van Dijk, on a new six-year contract. Not only was this an astute piece of business due to the Dutchman’s clear talent, but it’s also a statement. A statement of intent and ambition. A statement that tells Mane and Wanyama, that Southampton is the place to be if you want to further your career. In seasons gone by, the clubs ripest and rawest talents have been prized away by the League’s “Big boys”, causing stalled development of the club. Yet still, we manage to progress each year through the incredible planning and management of the club; by no means can this be labelled fortuitous. But as a fan who wants to see his team be the best they can possibly be, I have to wonder, what would have been if we held onto our finest talents? After this statement from the club, we may well find out this summer.

But just how good of a year has this been for Southampton? Well, second only to the Premier League Champions Leicester City to be exact. Over 2016, only Leicester City (41) have recorded more Premier League points than Southampton (36). Given our results in the latter stages of 2015 this season, Southampton being on the cusp of achieving back-to-back Europa League qualification isn’t half bad. In fact, it’s an incredible story that without Leicester City’s dream season occurring, would most likely be filling the back pages. However, whilst this would be a fully deserved achievement for the club, we want to keep growing, and therefore, this should only be seen as the beginning of something special. As Claudio Ranieri would say “Let’s dream”.

 

Southampton’s race for European football

After last week’s exhilarating performance and result against Liverpool, Ronald Koeman’s side showed they have the fight, resolve and quality to challenge for European qualification. With Graziano Pelle and Sadio Mane replicating their great early season form, all whilst Shane Long and Charlie Austin have popped up with vital goals, Southampton are now breathing down the neck of their fellow European football competitors.

As we approach the final few hurdles of the remaining season, the teams that join Southampton in this mouthwatering finale are Liverpool, Stoke City, Man Utd, West Ham and Manchester City. Liverpool are currently sat in 9th position, Stoke are in at 8th, with Manchester Utd in 6th, West Ham are on the brink of Champions League football, sat in 5th place, and Manchester City are slacking in 4th. With only seven points separating Man City in 4th and Liverpool in 9th, the Premier League will surely have a few more twists and turns as these sides challenge for a European spot, be it the Europa League, or the Champions League.

However, the race for these European spots will become much clearer when all teams have played the same total of games. Due to European and domestic cup commitments, not every team has featured the same amount of times in the league this season. Liverpool have the most games in hand, with two, which could potentially move the reds one place higher to 8th –  leapfrogging Stoke in turn. Then, with results going their way, Liverpool could move as high as 7th, but only if they were to better Southampton’s goal difference.

All three teams above Southampton have a game in hand, due to FA cup and Capital One cup appearances.

These could prove to be crucial points for West Ham, Manchester City and Manchester United to gain breathing space from the following pack. Manchester United and West Ham could go six points clear of Southampton if results fall in their favour, and Man City could push their margin to seven points. The pressure is well and truly with the four teams who have their games in hand.

On paper, Liverpool and Manchester City have the ‘easiest’ run-in in terms of times facing the current top four. Liverpool will only play against Tottenham on the 2nd of April, whilst Man City will only face Arsenal. Unfortunately Saints fans, you guessed it, we have the toughest run-in on paper. Southampton will play against three of the current top four in the last seven games of the season. And of course, that would include the current top two battling it out for the Premier League crown – Leicester City and Tottenham Hotspur. The King Power Stadium is Southampton’s next stop in the Premier League, whilst our final away outing of the season is at White Hart Lane, against Pochettino’s Spurs. Before Southampton make the trip to North London, however, St Mary’s will be the host of a potentially season-defining match against Man City on the 1st of May.

As for the Hammers and the Potters, West Ham will face Arsenal and Leicester, whilst Stoke will play against Man City and Tottenham. Manchester United will also compete with the current top two – Leicester City and Tottenham Hotspur. United’s clash against the Foxes will be held at Old Trafford, whilst they also travel, like Southampton, to North London to face Tottenham.

Worryingly, the final table would be grim reading for Saints if the remaining fixtures finished how the reverse fixtures finished earlier in the season. If Saints’ remaining seven games finished how they did earlier in the campaign, we would only gain three more points, leaving us with 50 points in 9th place. Manchester City would rise to 3rd with 73 points, whilst Arsenal would slip down to their familiar surroundings of 4th place with 68 points.

Manchester United would finish the season in 5th and gain automatic qualification to the Europa League, whilst West Ham, who would finish in 6th place, qualify through Manchester City’s Capital One Cup win. Liverpool would finish in 7th with 59 points and Stoke would finish one place below the reds in 8th.

However, there’s no need to panic Southampton fans. During the reverse fixtures, Southampton were in their worst form of the current season. We have to remember that during those games, we were missing Pelle, Forster and Rodriguez. Not to mention that we were still trying to find our feet after the loss of Morgan Schneiderlin, Nathaniel Clyne and Toby Alderweireld. Now, however, with the return of Forster, the defence has looked as strong and reliable as it did the season before. To add to the positives, Pelle and Mane are both back amongst the goals, Shane Long is in the best form of his career, Charlie Austin and Jay Rodriguez will be back from injury and Wanyama looks to have turned a corner after his five-match ban. With all these factors present, there’s no reason why we can’t get the results to gift us an immediate return to European football for Ronald Koeman’s side.  

 

Why Europa could be on the cards for Koeman and co

We are now 23 games into the Premier League season and finally, it seems Southampton have found their feet. In a season where Leicester City are three points clear at the top and Chelsea have dealt battle with Bournemouth, Norwich and Villa for relegation, It would hardly be preposterous to suggest that Southampton can compete in Europe for the second season running. Here’s why.

The opening fixtures were greeted by fans as periods of transition, but as Southampton approached the midway point of the season, attractive football and results were few and far between.
Matchday 19 saw Southampton suffer a 2-1 defeat at the hands of Slaven Bilic’s Payet-less Hammers. Matchday 20 brought even more misery, with Southampton leaving Carrow Road empty handed. And one week later, Alan Pardew’s Palace dumped Southampton out of the FA cup.

But then, with a change of system, the return of Fraser Forster and the revenant of Shane Long, Southampton find themselves having played three games with nine points, six goals and three clean sheets to show for it.
Despite this being the first time Southampton have clicked all season, they sit in the comfortable heights of eighth place in irrepressible form. All of this makes for good reason to be optimistic for the remainder of the season, right?

Since being in the Premier League, one of Southampton’s biggest downfalls has been squandering those crucial moments and failing to bury half chances; quite frankly, this is what separates mid table teams from the top four. This season especially, Southampton have started the first half brightly, carving a number of key chances for themselves. However, putting them away has proved rather difficult to watch.

With Charlie Austin now in Southampton’s ranks, they have their proven goal scorer; they have a game winner. To put it into facts and stats, Pelle has taken 175 shots since the start of the 2014/15 Premier League season, scoring 18 goals. In that same time, Austin has taken 179 shots and scored 29 goals in a far less able attacking outlet.

Southampton fans have every reason to be optimistic about the prospect of Austin’s movement, positioning and finishing in the red and white stripes. One can only hope that with the addition of Austin, fans won’t have to rue those wasted chances come the final whistle.

The signing of Charlie Austin has been made all the more thrilling as its coincided with the return of England International Fraser Forster, the integration of England U21 Matt Targett and the simply faultless performance from James Ward-Prowse versus West Bromwich Albion.

Why may this help us achieve European football? we have our identity back. Youth development and an English spine have gone hand in hand with Southampton over previous years and during the first half of this season, it was nowhere to be seen. Whilst we all love watching Pelle tuck one away, it’s all the sweeter watching an England International rifle one home.

The fans are once again thrilled to watch local boys represent their club, impressed to see that we have a set direction and that foreign players can understand what we’re all about. A club losing its identity is dangerous and hard to recover, simply look at Manchester United. But right now, It’s exciting. Really exciting.

So exciting in fact that wantaway transfer rebel, Victor Wanyama, has reportedly told friends and family that he wants to sign a new deal. Refusing to sell our finest talents has been a big step toward growing as a club, but convincing them to extend their stay, that’s a sign of ambition to all players currently in the squad and potential future signings. Not only does it provide a mental boost to the team, but it also allows Koeman to plan for the future and know that he can rely on Wanyama. Pinning down stars on a new contract means far more than just retaining the talent.

Now we come to Fraser Forster. It could easily be argued that the England International has been the catalyst in Southampton’s revival of form. Since returning from injury, Forster and our now discipline defence have kept Watford (H), West Bromwich Albion (H) and Manchester United (A) at bay. That’s three clean sheets from three possible fixtures. Before Forster returned, we kept three clean sheets in our previous 17.

Whilst the six-foot-seven-inch shot-stopper has not been pushed into any hard work yet, his influence is clear to see. He’s installed that much-needed confidence back into our defence and allowed us to once again play out from the back.

As for competition, a goal-shy Crystal Palace are falling down the table, Everton’s inability to defend completely undoes the hard work of their frontline, Stoke simply don’t hit the back of that big white thing enough and Swansea have found themselves in a surprising battle for Premier League survival. At this moment in time, It looks to be a four horse race between Manchester United, West Ham, Liverpool and Southampton for European football.

In reality however, Southampton will only achieve Europa League qualification through the triumph of two already European qualified teams in the FA cup and Capital One Cup. Never the less, it would require us to finish somewhere in the top seven spaces; what an incredible turnaround that would be given Southampton’s poor early season form.

Yes, it’s a big ask. Yes, we will be relying on the work of others and yes, our form may well collapse over the next 15 games. However, we’ve all followed the Premier League and Southampton far too long to know that the unpredictable is rather predictable.

Season Review: Five Things Learnt With Five Games Gone

Were well underway in the 2015/16 season and so far it’s been one of mixed emotions for fans on the South coast. Southampton have been battered, done the battering, sent fans to away games more effective than sleeping pills and most importantly, kept hold of stars Sadio Mane and Victor Wanyama. So, what have we learnt?

1) Standing ground in the market

The first and perhaps most important lesson is that we have managed to keep a firm grip on our African stars. Both Victor Wanyama and Sadio Mane played key roles in last years against all odds season; with such mesmerizing performances, fans were understandably fearing a summer exodus 2.0. All had prepared for yet another social media mockery.

However, Southampton chairman Les Reed ensured to make it clear that no player was to be leaving Southampton for the remainder of the window – this followed from the departures of Morgan Schneiderlin and Nathaniel Clyne. Despite manager Ronald Koeman continuing to reiterate Reed’s promise, the rumour mill stops for no one. Tottenham Hotspur fans remained confident of securing the Kenyan’s signature, and in turn, many Southampton fans trembled at the knees. Yet here we are.

Since the Norwich City game it seems that Wanyama’s toys have returned to his pram and all can be dusted behind us. The board have remained strong and it’s an act that fans could certainly get used to.

We wouldn’t have it any other way, would we Saints fans?

well…

2) The Black Box Has Worked Its Magic Once Again

Had it not been for this wonder working machine, Southampton football club may well have been the laughing stock that the media wanted so badly last season.

Now it seems that Southampton have uncovered yet more gems in the form of Romeu ( 4.9 Million from Chelsea ) Cedric Soares ( 4.55 Million from Sporting Clube De Portugal ) and Virgil Van Dijk ( 11 Million from Celtic ). Romeu has offered a much needed presence in midfield after the departure of Schneiderlin to Manchester United. Fans have been wowed by his wide range of passing, passion on the field and crunching tackles; he’s fast becoming a fan favourite, proving to be our best player of the new season along the way.

Then we have the Portuguese International Cedric Soares who has provided an incredible option from the right side with persistent movement, a beautiful cross and stamina to make Steven Davis proud. Our new right back has already notched up one assist in his first five games, beating Nathaniel Clyne’s assist tally from last season. On top of that he has created six more chances than Clyne’s disappointing two for Liverpool; not half bad for a debut season.

To round it off we have the newly capped Dutch International Virgil Van Dijk who was a shining light in the recent fixture against West Bromwich Albion; with a classy touch, an eye for a pass and a composed defender, he’s a shoe in fit for Toby Alderweireld. Were yet to see a true reflection of Juanmi, Jordy Clasie and Marteen Stekelenburg’s talents, but with the track record that Southampton hold, it would come as no surprise for them to soon flourish under Ronald Koeman.

3) Europe Can Wait

 

After last seasons displays, Southampton fans held every reason to be positive about the European journey that lay ahead.

Sadly however it wasn’t to be, Southampton steered clear of their beautiful fluid football and poorly exchanged it with a Sam Allardyce tactical dream. To fans it became apparent that we had lost our core – thanks to th departure of Schneiderlin – and we needed time for our new faces to settle in. After all, it’s hard to maintain your identity with just two familiar faces in the seven defensive positions.

In a season that will largely be focused on transition and cohesion, European football would simply be an unneeded headache at the cost of League form. For now, the European nights can wait until we are ready to march on.

 

4) Koeman’s Favoritism

It’s slowly becoming more and more evident that Ronald Koeman holds his selected favourites. Whilst I applaud his man management and belief that he installs in his players, you have to worry that it could be at the cost of performance and team morale.

In light of the recent Wanyama transfer saga, James Ward-Prowse and Oriol Romeu proved to form a perfect partnership in his absence. Despite wiping the floor clean with Norwich City and producing the first and only high quality game of the season, it wasn’t enough. Wanyama returned, Romeu was dropped and subsequently James Ward-Prowse was pushed forward into a less familiar position; the result? a share of the spoils in what was to be a 0-0 snoozefest against West Bromwich Albion. Granted, this is a point against a well structured Tony Pulis side that went out with the intent not to lose. However, you just can’t help but wonder what may have been if we stuck with our winning formula. Even more so if the returning player “Isn’t mentally ready” after a blocked transfer away. If it ain’t broke don’t fix it, Ron.

5) We Can Still Play That Beautiful Football

Early season form was not only worrying, but ugly in the process. As mentioned before, our football shown against FC Midtjylland on the European stage was nothing to be proud of and a million miles away from the standards we had set last season. Fans were especially worried about the aesthetics of our play when you tie this performance in with the defensively poor showing against Newcastle and Everton. It had seemed we lost our identity; our beautiful and crisp passing that helped to make us everyone’s little soft spot was nowhere to be seen. Whilst fans questioned if that football had made its move to The Theatre Of Dreams, Koeman’s army produced the greatest response to silence the doubters… a dominating three nil masterclass. Southampton proved to be superior in every position against Norwich City in a performance that proudly and rightly belonged at St. Mary’s.

With our number one summer target Virgil Van Dijk still settling in and Clasie joining Bertrand on the way back from injury, play can only improve.

The overlapping runs, quick one touch passing, constant movement and sharp decisions were back, let’s hope they are here to stay.

 

 

Talking Point: Why Saints Fans Shouldn’t Worry About Sacrificing League Form For a European Run

After ex Saint Tim Sparv stunned St.Mary’s last Thursday by snatching FC Midtjylland an away goal and a share of the spoils, Southampton have it all to do this coming Thursday. With the score tied at one apiece, Ronald Koeman’s side will have to score at least one goal to book their place in the group stages of the Europa League.

 

The height of optimism by some for the season ahead is what I can regrettably only describe as, unrealistic – just like any other club would after a successful season, Southampton host a group of naive fans who think we can finish in the top seven, reach a domestic final and make the later knockout rounds of the Europa League. These same fans are those who scream MELTDOWN, claim that we are not reinvesting the money and that we are “going backwards” after a goalless draw to an inform Watford that have a point to prove.

The way I see it, Southampton are due a major trophy. If that were to mean a 14th place finish rather than a top half spot, I think I’d be content – as would many others upon watching club legends Jose Fonte and Kelvin Davis lift the trophy. After all, what’s the difference between 10th and 14th anyway? bragging rights over other mid table sides? extra prize money that is equal to one weeks wages?

Its safe to say we are no European Giants. The last time Southampton prepared for those oh so desired European nights was back in 2003 – even then, that was only two qualification legs against Steaua Bucharest.

However, this time round with an experienced European manager and a squad with greater depth, we have already beaten our 2003 European tour – If you can even call it that.

There are some big names in Europe’s second biggest club competition this year and Saints fans could have some extraordinary away trips. The electrical atmosphere of those Eastern European sides and jaw-droppingly vast stadiums such as Westfalenstadion – the battlefield of Borussia Dortmund – are certainly something to look forward to.

Realistically, we don’t have the squad to go far in all four competitions. If by the odd chance that we did go all the way in every competition, were talking about an 81 game season. However, that just won’t happen. Not only would that drain the players physically and mentally, but it would also destroy each player’s marriage in turn.

Now, lets take our mandatory 38 Premier League games and chuck in an early cup exit, getting to a respectable Europa League finish and a half decent FA cup run. We are now presented with our “What could be” 60 game season. Fans must understand that in a season consisting of 60 games, our form will peter out at some point; tired legs and sloppy passes happen to the big guns and we are certainly no exception.

So Saints fans, we can’t have it all. But that’s not to mean we can’t give it our best shot. Simply remember where we were six years ago and enjoy the journey, for were all going on a European Tour.

Europa League Overview : Were All Going On A European Tour

After a seventh place finish in the Premier League last season, Southampton exceeded all expectations of everybody outside the club. Couple this record league performance with an Arsenal win in the FA Cup final and the South Coast club find themselves in European competition for the first time since the 2003-04 season. With fans of clubs such as Everton and Swansea labeling the Europa League a hindrance on league form, Ronald Koeman and Southampton fans will be wondering how they can avoid this growing curse.

The Europa League can be seen as something of a poisoned chalice for clubs due to playing matches on Thursday nights and Sunday afternoons, but is this really a massive disadvantage to teams playing in the competition?

Everton certainly found the congested fixtures hard to manage, finishing eleventh in the league last season after a previous fifth place finish. Yet Borussia Mönchengladbach, Wolfsburg and current Europa champions Sevilla had terrific league campaigns; all three clubs now find themselves in the Champions League this coming season.

The Saints will encounter a lot of different styles in Europe and will have to adjust the way they play to combat their opponents. English teams have really under performed in Europe of late, partially by not adapting to the continental style. Examples of this are Arsenal against Monaco in last year’s Champions League and Tottenham against Benfica in the 13-14 Europa League. The English teams played the “Premier League way” in these games and were exposed over two legs.

To succeed in Europe you need to be a lot more patient and less gung-ho. This is where creative players such as Dusan Tadic can come in handy for the Saints. His technical ability is superb; he can hold the ball well and has an eye for a killer pass, making him well suited to the style of European football. Perhaps even Gaston Ramirez could come into his element through the Europa League.

The players will be up against opposition which they won’t have played against before, they will need to learn quickly what to expect from a big and burly Russian forward for example. The squad will no doubt be given more time to look at the traits of these less familiar opposition players and whilst other sides may hold less quality, they could posses a player who must be contained in a certain way.

Therefore, the preparation will differ from recent years at Staplewood, as they more or less know what to expect from a Premier League rival after three years of experience.

Saints will also encounter some monumentally different atmospheres. Playing in countries like Turkey and Greece are a polar opposite to weekend games at Old Trafford and Anfield. The fans of these clubs can be nothing short of animalistic in their enthusiasm for their teams and pyrotechnics are nothing out of the ordinary.

Koeman and his team have been around the block, boasting previous European experience as both a player and a manager. So, fans should be confident in Koemans decisions throughout the competition, as well as being sure to stand by some of the players who will be getting their first taste of European action. At the end of the day, this Europa League campaign is a reward for last year’s efforts and should therefore be enjoyed every step of the way.