Around this time of every season, you will often hear journalists and pundits alike joke about how certain clubs are doing everything they can to avoid qualifying for the Europa League.
I never thought Southampton would be one of them.
Everybody knows the pitfalls of playing in the competition that frankly has too many games and includes far too many teams, but surely for an outfit like Saints, both the novelty and the fact that it would be the next point of progression for the club it would be worth the risk?
Everyone associated with the club keeps saying that Europe is the aim, yet performances on the pitch over the last month or so would suggest that it is anything but. Lacklustre, lethargic and largely lamentable, Saints ambled around the pitch in Leicester like a…
We are almost at that historic day. The day we find out whether the euro-sceptic blues can keep themselves in the big house, or whether the Red’s can complete a dramatic turnaround from also-rans to trailblazers!
Election you say? No, I’m talking about Leicester City against Southampton.
There may not be a more pivotal fixture in the Premier League this weekend, as the Foxes can all but secure their miraculous recovery, while Saints must win to keep alive any hopes of an amazing fanfare finish to their season and secure European football.
If you had asked me six months ago what the result of this game might be I’d have confidently predicted a comfortable Southampton victory, but while former Saints boss Nigel Pearson has overseen a revival as good as any of our Premier League ‘Great Escapes’…
It’s not often I get to see Saints’ Under 21’s in action, so I was delighted to see that they were playing Leicester City in nearby Nuneaton tonight.
It was bitterly cold at Nuneaton Town’s Liberty Way stadium as the likes of Town manager Liam Daish, Coventry City boss Stephen Pressley, Houston Dynamo forward Giles Barnes (brother of Saints sub Marcus), some important looking chaps from Hull City, a plethora of serious looking men with notepads and pencils and what looked like Vincent Pericard, or maybe Lennox Lewis took their seats for this Under 21 Premier League encounter.
It was a bright start by both sides, with the styles of both immediately recognisable. Saints named a side lacking in first team experience and were clearly focused on team play, while their hosts side included Nick Powell, Marc Albrighton and Anthony Knockaert who all have plenty of games at the highest level under their belt. Powell and Knockaert were the focus of all their play and clearly the dangermen from the word go.
Saints took the lead though, through a brilliant individual effort from Josh Sims, weaving his way through the Foxes defence before hitting a fine curling finish. Powell then showed his influence, bigger in both reputation and physical stature he imposed himself on the much smaller Saints midfield and was pulling the strings, scoring twice along the way to give the home side a deserved lead.
Had it not been for some impressive stops from Paolo Gazzaniga the scoreline could have been less comfortable for the visitors, and they came out for the second half with a new impetus. Ryan Seager looked sharp every time he got into the box and it was his he that got Saints back in it.
Anthony Knockaert was causing all sorts of problems on the left, and showed just how ready he is for the Premier League by going down under minimal to no contact, and crying to the referee every time something didn’t go his way. If that was annoying me enough, his celebration after putting the Foxes back in front, more suited to a Wembley cup final than in front of 100 people in the reserves upped it somewhat before his horror challenge on Bevis Mugabi put it at peak level.
It was nice to see some refereeing consistency though as the man in the middle consistently didn’t punish some hefty over the top tackles from both sides, Knockaert perhaps helped by Mugabi’s lack of fuss.
Saints pushed for a second equaliser and went close several times, before Seager again showed why his name is being suggested for first team football with a tidy finish to snatch a point at the death.
All in all an enjoyable evening, and a great end to end game. Powell was the difference for much of the game, and Leicester undoubtedly created more chances, but Saints play was slicker than their opponents at times and they deserved to get back in it.
I was particularly impressed by Jason McCarthy who showed why he is captain with his constant talking and organising, Josh Debayo who marshalled the Leicester right winger expertly, and with an air of calm that almost made it look nonchalant, Josh Sims, whose skill was clear but sadly had to be replaced early on, Omar Rowe who has unbelievable pace and was a constant menace to the Foxes defence (and the referee who booked him for dissent after several tirades) and Ryan Seager who is a goalscorer, simple as that!
Leicester U21s: Adam Smith, Alie Sesay, Kieran Kennedy, Callum Elder, Jack Barmby, Jak McCourt, Nick Powell, Anthony Knockaert, Marc Albrighton, Joe Dodoo (Joe Davis 77), Tom Hopper (c).
Unused substitutes: John Maddison (GK), Kris Scott, Harry Panayiotou, Simonas Stankevicius.
Goals: Powell (33, 38), Knockaert (75)
Saints U21s: Paulo Gazzaniga, Jake Flannigan, Bevis Mugabi, Jason McCarthy (c), Josh Debayo, Dominic Gape, Armani Little (Niall Mason 46), Josh Sims (Harley Willard 27), Omar Rowe, Sam McQueen, Ryan Seager.
Unused substitutes: Will Britt (GK), Marcus Barnes, Ollie Cook
Southampton have continued their charge at the top of the table, by yet again winning last weekend, away at Hull City. Southampton sit four points off Chelsea at the top of the league, and fans may well be starting to believe that they can genuinely push for a continental qualification spot. It is 1/8 with 888sport for Southampton to win against Leicester.
Morgan Schneiderlin has been extremely impressive in central midfield this season, and it is no wonder why he was highly coveted in the summer. The Frenchman has made the seventh most passes in the opposition half out of any player in the Premier League, with 330. In addition to this, Schneiderlin the most ground out of anyone in the league, averaging a distance of 12.21km per game, making him the only player to have averaged above 12km per game.
Victor Wanyama managed to get himself on the scoresheet for Southampton against Hull last weekend, and the midfielder has an impressive set of statistics to back up his goal. The EA SPORTS Player Performance Index shows that Wanyama has completed 100% of the dribbles he has attempted so far this season (6). Wanyama has also completed 88.02% of his passes successfully this season.
Nathaniel Clyne was this week called up to the England squad, and on the basis of the EA SPORTS Player Performance Index it is thoroughly deserved. The fullback has made the greatest number of successful tackles in the entire Premier League with 50. What is more impressive, is that in doing so, Clyne has only made five fouls, in comparison to those in second and third place who have made 25 and 20 fouls respectively.
Leicester have made the best start to the season of the promoted sides, however still sit in 18th place on nine points. The game against Southampton is set to be a tough challenge, but one that Nigel Pearson will believe he can come out of with a good result.
Leicester have now been unable to score in their last three Premier League games and will be looking to Leonardo Ulloa to help end the drought. The forward started the season in scintillating form but has been unable to help Leicester in their last three games. Ulloa still boasts an impressive scoring record of a goal every 155 minutes, according to the EA SPORTS Player Performance Index. Ulloa is 17/2 to score first with 888sport.
Wes Morgan has continued his impressive form at the back, despite the team’s form. The Leicester captain has now made 96 clearances, which is the fifth highest total of any Premier League player, according to the EA SPORTS Player Performance Index. Morgan has also made 14 blocks which is the second greatest of any player in the division too.
Ritchie De Laet’s total of 36 successful tackles is the fifth highest total in the league according to the EA SPORTS Player Performance Index. Alongside Morgan, they will be hoping to solidify the defence further this weekend, in order to keep the attacking talent of Southampton at bay.
“Data supplied by the EA SPORTS Player Performance Index. Select and manage your own team of stars with at http://fantasy.premierleague.com or with FIFA Ultimate team.”
Just before Saints went down 3-2 to Leicester at the King Power Stadium at the end of August I looked at the ex-Saints among their squad (check it out here), playing staff wise not a lot has changed. Matt Oakley has had a loan spell with Exeter City, while Matt Mills has been a regular as the Foxes who have been in indifferent form.
It was perhaps this indifferent form that saw manager Sven Goran Eriksson leave the club by mutual consent at the end of October.
This saw the return of another ex-Saint to Leicester, in the shape of former boss Nigel Pearson.
Pearson joined Saints in February 2008 after the side had suffered poor form under the caretakership of John Gorman following George Burely’s defection to the Scottish national team.
Coming in off the back of just one full time managerial role at Carlisle United in the late nineties, many fans were sceptical about his appointment.
He arrived at St. Mary’s when the job was somewhat of a poisoned chalice. Saints were 18th in the Championship and the soon-to-be well publicised financial issues were bubbling under behind the scenes.
The former England U-21 coach got off to a shaky start, not winning in his first five games, although only one of those (his first in charge) ended in defeat. His first victory, came rather ironically, at home to Leicester City. Stern John scoring an acrobatic volley from Mario Licka’s flick to get a precious three points against their fellow strugglers.
Saints would only go on to win twice more that season, but the supporters were encouraged by the battling performances that Pearson’s rejuvenated men were putting in.
Saints went into the final day of the 2007/08 season in 22nd place, and staring relegation to League One in the face. Needing to both win at home to Sheffield United (who could grab themselves a play off place) and hope that at least one other above them slipped up.
Saints came from behind to lead 2-1 before being pegged back again, but it was Stern John who converted the winner and Leicester’s stalemate at Stoke meant Pearson had escaped the drop.
After a truly dreadful season, Saints fans were optimistic that with a transfer window at his disposal, and the encouraging performances at the end of 2008 that Pearson would be capable of building a decent side at St. Mary’s. That wasn’t to be though and at the end of May that year Rupert Lowe sacked Pearson and replaced him with Dutchman Jan Poortvliet, a move that would be proved to be both purely financial and ultimately disastrous.
Pearson was appointed manager of Leicester City and led them to the League One title, while Saints car crash couple of seasons spiralled out of control.
Saints welcome back Pearson to St. Mary’s, now in his second spell at Leicester City on Monday night.
“If God had wanted us to play football in the clouds, he’d have put grass up there.” – Brian Clough
Saints head to Pride Park this weekend to face Derby County in a top of the table clash which has already attracted a crowd of thirty thousand people.
Nigel Adkins will be pitting his wits against Nigel Clough. Both have had fantastic records so far this season, and have their teams playing the way football should be played. One stark difference for them though, is that for Clough, he will always be compared to “Old Big ‘Ead” himself, father Brian.
Clough Snr will always be regarded as one of the greatest managers this country has ever produced, bringing attention to himself, first with Saturday’s opponents Derby, before huge success with arch rivals Nottingham Forest, and it was in his Forest days that Clough Snr, proved to be somewhat of a spoilsport for Saints. Twice, the great man denied us in cup finals, some thirteen years apart.
Firstly, in 1979 Southampton found themselves the underdogs for another Wembley final in the League Cup, taking on league champions and holders Nottingham Forest. Despite taking an early lead, Saints were eventually bossed by the class of Clough’s men. A valiant effort from the team in yellow though saw the final score at 3-2 in favour of the champions, with Saints goals coming from Nick Holmes and David Peach. Archie Gemmill the architect for Forest. Strike one to Clough.
1992 saw Saints and Forest meet again in the capital, this time for the Zenith Data Systems Cup final, Clough’s side may not have been the force they were thirteen years previously, but they were going well in the league, and had been in the previous season’s FA Cup final. Amongst their team were two sons of note, Nigel making a name for himself up front, and Scott the offspring of 1979’s chief tormenter Archie. Saints came back from a 2-0 deficit to take the game to extra time, Kevin Moore and Matthew Le Tissier getting the goals, but it was to be a Gemmill again that would have a definitive say in the outcome. Adding to his fifteenth minute opener, Gemmill won the match in the second period of extra time, for another 3-2 Forest victory. Strike two to Clough.
Son Nigel has followed a similar career path to his Dad so far, starting in the lower echelons of English Football with Burton Albion, and now overseeing things at Derby County. He hasn’t quite emulated Brian’s successes just yet (Clough Snr won the second division in his second season at the Baseball Ground), but signs this season are that he has what it takes to make the Rams Championship challengers.
What does look certain, is that the battle of the Nigel’s, could be both a fantastic spectacle and a meeting of two of this countries top up and coming managers. Saints will be hoping, that the Clough factor is a thing of the past, and that 2007 Pride Park playoff semi final memories can be banished forever. With no chance of Leon Best or Inigo Idiakez being on penalties, Saints will have more than a chance, but away performances haven’t been spectacular recently, and Derby smarting from a a 4-0 defeat at the hands of Leicester last time out will be looking to bounce back.
It is no surprise that this seems to be the Championship “Game of the Week” for many of the countries media outlets. First against third, Let’s hope it lives up to it.
Saints head to the King Power Stadium this Saturday to take on high spending Sven Goran Eriksson’s Leicester City.
The former England manager has made nice use of the summer transfer window, bringing a virtually whole new team in, a clear statement of intent from the Swede, that promotion is the Foxes only goal this season.
Amongst the plethora of talent that Eriksson has assembled, two former Saints with differing fortunes on the South Coast could be in line to face their old club.
A product of the Southampton Academy, Oakley is fondly remembered at St. Mary’s. The central midfielder made his debut for the Saints aged just eighteen in 1995 and went on to play over three hundred times for the club.
In his career highlight, Oakley was named in Gordon Strachan’s starting lineup for the 2003 FA Cup final, somewhere we might never have been had it not been for his Extra Time winner at the Den in a Fifth Round Replay. During this period of his career he was also touted for an England chance by many (of course it was Sven who didn’t pick him).
Having established himself over the years as a first choice and dependable midfielder, comfortable at playing the holding role as well as getting forward and creating attacks, it is no surprise to me that Southampton’s Premier League demise coincided with long term injury woes for Oakley, he played just seven times in the 2004/05 relegation season.
Oakley’s twelve year service at the club ended in 2006 after he rejected a new contract before signing for Derby County. It has always been a mystery to me why Oakley was never granted a testimonial with the club, although, it was rumoured that he was to have one in the 2006/07 season had he not moved on.
Oakley went on to captain the Rams in their promotion season, before heading off to Leicester City in January 2008, exchanging a Premier League relegation battle for a Championship one. The Foxes lost that battle, dropping to League One amongst the final day drama that saw Saints survive.
Oakley was named captain for the following season as Leicester romped their way to the League One title and remained a regular in the side during last season’s campaign. Whether or not he can fight off Sven’s new guard and retain it this season remains to be seen…
“Some Leicester fans have just never got on with Matt Oakley. He’s never been the most exciting player but on his day he can still pull the strings in midfield (although one Guardian reporter’s description of him as ‘the Xavi of the Championship’ was perhaps overdoing it).
Oakley’s first team appearances have been limited to the Carling Cup so far this season, and with the wealth of midfield talent in the Leicester ranks it’s difficult to see how the former Saint will be able to force his way back into Sven’s plans. With one year remaining on his contract, we can expect Matt to be looking for another club next summer.”
In contrast to Matt Oakley’s Saints career his namesake Mills spent very little time on the South Coast. Another product of the Academy, centre half Mills showed massive potential in loan spells at Coventry City and Bournemouth, and also in the few Championship appearances he made for the club. On the verge of establishing himself in the Saints first team, Mills’ head was turned by Manchester City in January 2006, former Saints boss Steve Wigley, alerting his new club to the young defender.
Having played for the Southampton first team just six times, the youngster headed off to Eastlands and the Premier League. Mills found first team appearances hard to come by with City though, and had to settle for loan spells at Colchester United and Doncaster Rovers (ironically dropping to a level below Saints) to get games. He eventually joined the Yorkshire club permanently in 2008 after securing promotion to the Championship.
He was to spend just one more season with Rovers though, before signing for Reading in the summer of 2009. This is where Mills really started to catch the eye, establishing himself as a solid central defender, and playing a major role in the Royals campaign last season that saw them reach the playoff final.
Sven was impressed enough with Mills to part with £5.5 million for him this summer.
Mike gives us his thoughts on Mills:-
“It’s fair to say the jury is still out on Matt Mills. The huge fee Leicester payed Reading for the centre-half was beginning to look like an albatross around his neck. An (unfortunate) own goal against Rotherham in the League Cup and a poor performance against his former employers led Sven to drop his new captain to the bench after just two league games. A more assured display at Nottingham Forest, coupled with much less erratic distribution has calmed some fans nerves and hopefully Mills’ own.
Mills is part of a back five in which only Sol Bamba has survived the summer unscathed, so uncertainty at this stage of the season is understandable. Eventually Mills will need to take command and cajole his new colleagues into keeping more clean sheets, something Leicester have only managed against a toothless Coventry City so far. But if results don’t improve in the medium term expect a few reactionaries to point to his price tag and wonder why the defence isn’t producing the goods.”
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