Five reasons why Southampton can end 40-year trophy drought against Manchester United
Ahead of the League Cup final between Manchester United and Southampton on Sunday, we take a look at why Claude Puel’s team might just spring a surprise and win their first trophy since the 1976 FA Cup...
The new 'Gabigol'
OK, that’s not technically Manolo Gabbiadini’s nickname. Yet. But the Italian is in some fine form. Not only has he scored three times in his first two games for the Saints, he also notched three goals in as many games for previous club Napoli before leaving in January. In fact, the last time he wasn’t on the scoresheet in a game he played, was back in early December.
Admittedly, he had limited opportunities at Napoli, scoring 15 goals in 55 league appearances. But there is no shame in being behind Gonzalo Higuain in the pecking order, as he was last season, and Gabbiadini does seems to be an excellent all-round target man, as his header, neat turn and finish against Sunderland and smart run and strike against West Ham proved.
He has been an excellent acquisition so far and will trouble the likely United centre-back pairing of Eric Bailly and Chris Smalling, giving the Southampton midfield more space to create chances. So, perhaps it's time for the Italy striker to take on the mantle from Gabriel Barbosa of Inter Milan fame and make that moniker his own.
Taking the Mkhi
After finally settling on a midfield that has solidity, creativity and also plays to the strengths of £89million man Paul Pogba, Jose Mourinho has been forced to shuffle his pack because of an injury to Henrikh Mkhitaryan.
Manchester United's Anthony Martial celebrates scoring their second goal with Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Juan MataReuters
This is not ideal. Since the Armenian returned to the team he has been a key part of the upsurge in United performances and their recent 18-game unbeaten run, scoring six and laying on five for others. He has been the link between midfield and attack and without him United have seemed far less fluid and more predictable.
Although Zlatan Ibrahimovic is always a threat, without one of his main sources of midfield supply, Southampton will be far more hopeful of keeping United at bay, even though they are weakened by the absence of Virgil van Dijk (ankle injury). And, this don’t forget is a team that has not conceded a goal in the tournament so far, after clean sheets against Liverpool and Arsenal.
Puel's pedigree for a Cupset
Claude Puel is no stranger to upsetting the odds. As manager of Lyon and Nice he built good young squads, with the former reaching the last four of the Champions League in 2010. He also won Ligue 1 and the Trophee des Champions with his first club as manager, Monaco.
Southampton manager Claude PuelReuters
So he will not be overawed by Wembley or Southampton's more illustrious opponents. Indeed, he was the architect of their demise in a Champions League match in 2005 as Lille manager, when Sir Alex Ferguson was calling the shots for a team that featured the likes of Wayne Rooney, Cristiano Ronaldo and Ruud van Nistelrooy.
Weary limbs at Wembley
The final will be United’s eighth match in 29 days, and despite being the most expensively assembled squad in history, Mourinho still has his favourites, players that he depends on and plays more than others, which mean that there will be some weary limbs at Wembley.
Manchester United manager Jose Mourinho prepares to bring substitutes Zlatan Ibrahimovic (centre) and Paul Pogba onto the pitchPA Photos
Add to that the large pitch and the fact that Southampton have had a full week to prepare for the game, compared with United’s three days, and the differences in preparation could be key. Although Mourinho has been bemoaning the fixture schedule, when compared with a pretty empty diary for Southampton, he has a point - Southampton will definitely be fresher.
Southampton's Shane Long celebrates scoring their fourth goal with team matesReuters
Southampton also have the added incentive of entering the Europa League should they take the silverware, whereas for United, anything but the Champions League will be deemed a failure.