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ON TO CARDIFF!

With the pressure mounting on manager Mark Hughes, Saturday saw the small proposition of Manchester United coming to town, under the lights as the day’s televised tea time fixture. Admittedly not what they once were during the Fergie era, United still possess a wealth of talent throughout their squad, key players including the likes of David De Gea, Anthony Martial, Marcus Rashford and the world’s most expensive footballer, Paul Pogba. With such luxuries at their disposal, a current position of seventh place is largely deemed unacceptable, especially when considering past glories. Therefore, Hughes was not the only one overseeing proceedings from the dugout and in desperate need of a result, with speculation rife regarding Mourinho’s future.
With the later kick-off, Saturday afforded the opportunity for a more relaxed start to the day and a chance to digest the early televised match, a helping of Championship action between two Yorkshire heavyweights. Sheffield United welcomed Leeds United to Bramall Lane with top spot up for grabs for the victor. Bragging rights ultimately went to The Whites after a goalkeeping howler, magnificently backed in terms of away following as usual, as the ‘sleeping giant’ from West Yorkshire, once a Champions League outfit continue their pursuit of a Premier League return.
Shortly after the culmination of the game, Dad and I, laden in Saints attire, made the usual journey from the other side of Salisbury to Southampton. Bearing in the mind the unusual start time and proximity to Christmas, I presumed the roads to be hectic and bearing this in mind, allowed slightly extra time in order to get a beat on the traffic. Typically, the route was as unobstructed as it’s been in months and we arrived in Southampton in under an hour, still, better than the panic of running late as had been the case in Leicestershire last Tuesday. Unfortunately, the parking was not as routine and having discovered our usual car park choice completely full, we were forced to search elsewhere. Thankfully, I managed to find a slither of a space in the train station’s larger car park and, having literally breathed in when departing the car to avoid incident, we made a short pit stop at the nearby convenience store. The usual priority of our stomachs had been adequately fulfilled with sandwiches and snacks in tow and off to St. Mary’s we marched.
In the build up to the game, Saints fans had been urged to arrive in their seats early in anticipation of a lights show and we certainly adhered to this request, taking up residence in the Northam roughly fifty minutes prior to the action getting underway, ample opportunity to scoff our savoury treats without running the risk of them projecting elsewhere during the ninety minutes. Prior to the introduction of the two sides, the lightshow was underway, United fans predictably could be heard chanting “what the f*cking hell is that?!”. This very line was later thrown back at them by the home faithful after parts of the away section were engulfed in red smoke, flairs having obviously been smuggled inside the ground.
The match itself saw the home side fly out of the traps. Following on from their impressive showings at Leicester during the week, youngsters Michael Obafemi and Yan Valery were granted their first starts, the latter at his natural position of Right Back, whilst Cedric shifted to the opposite side to fill in for Matt Targett, not risked following concussion. Surprisingly also and as I had hoped, Wesley Hoedt finally paid for another error littered performance, summer recruit from Bundesliga giants Monchengladbach Jannik Vestergaard his replacement.
Nathan Redmond, a rare highlight in what has thus far been a torrid season, tormented the United rear guard from the get go. The momentum gained from the positive start paid dividends when in the 13th minute, Saints took the lead. Redmond danced his way around the opposition, gifting to Obafemi who intelligently looked up and located Armstrong in space inside the United box. The Scotsman, in his third consecutive start following bizarre regular omission, slammed past De Gea and into the bottom left hand corner.
So often this season, Saints have been punished for not capitalising whilst in the ascendancy, but this was not the case when their lead was doubled just seven minutes later. Cedric, far from being renowned as a set piece specialist, signalled his intent and placed the ball down on the edge of the United area. The Portuguese stepped up and expertly curled into the top corner, another exemplary finish evading the outstretched fingers of De Gea and what a perfect way to secure your first Premier League goal for the club.
The visitors had hardly had a sniff up to this point but somehow halved the deficit. The electric Rashford drove to the byline, Yoshida was punished for not getting tight enough and the ball was pulled back for Lukaku to smash high into McCarthy’s net. Saints have always seemed to struggle to contain the Belgian, the former Chelsea youngster now registering at St. Mary’s for multiple outfits such as West Brom, Everton and of course United – Romelu also bagged the winner in a 1-0 victory on the South Coast last season.
Kevin Friend was the man in the middle and seemed particularly frivolous with his card showing, both Rashford and Fellaini cautioned for United, whilst Hojbjerg saw yellow for scything down Pogba. Of the two former Juventus players, Pogba and Lemina, the Gabon international certainly overshadowed the World Cup winner and in actual fact, you’d have judged Lemina to have been the more valuable player out of the pair on this showing.
Having dominated the affair, fear of previous collapses crept in as United equalised prior to the break. Rashford the provider as he once again proved too much to handle for the Saints defence, picking out Herrera who audaciously flicked into the bottom corner of the goal. United, buoyed by their resurgence continued on top and clearly sensed that the lead was in sight, the urgency incredibly evident as coaches/substitutes roared towards the ball when it strayed out of play. This was then quickly handed to a member of the starting eleven in order to keep Saints penned in under immense pressure. However difficult this approach was to combat, the home side stood strong and the teams went in level at half-time.
The hard work and energy exerted to stay on level terms was almost undone instantly when just moments into the second half, the towering Fellaini, now minus a mop of a hairdo, came agonisingly close with a header. Obafemi, putting in another encouraging display which merited a goal, had a penalty appeal waived away before being withdrawn for Gabbiadini. The switch almost paid off within minutes as Armstrong linked the play, feeding the Italian but De Gea matched his strike.
Former academy graduate Luke Shaw, now a regular starter under Mourinho after a difficult start to his career in Lancashire, hobbled off injured. Whilst circling the pitch’s periphery, the majority of Saints fans applauded the one time home favourite and this sentiment was reciprocated by the Left Back. Unfortunately, however, there were several individuals who booed and screamed “you fat b*stard”, something I simply cannot comprehend. Surely, we should be proud of developing arguably one of the most promising players in the country and not only that, he hardly departed in negative circumstances. With no affiliation to Saints prior and the opportunity to join one of the biggest clubs in world football, I can’t imagine that many other young players would have declined the approach.
With just over ten minutes remaining, Redmond kept up his high energetic performance and nearly caught De Gea out from long range with a snapshot, the Spaniard having to tip over. No breakthrough was found though and both sides were forced to settle for a point apiece. Squandering a two nil advantage was obviously frustrating but the performance was much improved and before the match, I’d have been content with a draw considering the opposition and our woeful record at home against the Red Devils, the last victory chalked up back in 2003 courtesy of a solitary James Beattie finish.
The Under-23s did not feature this weekend but there was a big occasion in store for our women, as they pitted their wits against MK Dons in the second round of the SSE Women’s FA Cup at Stadium:MK. The Dons compete a number of tiers higher and unfortunately it showed as Saints were overpowered in a 4-0 loss, the ladies having done so well to reach such a stage, prevailing in numerous qualifying rounds beforehand. Despite the setback, the experience of facing stiff opposition and featuring in a UEFA recognised stadium will no doubt do the newly formed side a world of good moving forward. Next up, Saints return to familiar surroundings, a home league tie against Woodley United on Sunday at AFC Totton’s Testwood ground. Entry is free for Saints season ticket holders and with the first team away this weekend, if you’re stuck for plans, why not go and offer some support?!
On Monday, the club announced that the contract of manager Mark Hughes had been terminated. I think the outcome was inevitable, but I found the timing bizarre, coming off the back of a promising draw against United. That being said and as many others have surmised, Hughes’ fate was most likely sealed regardless of Saturday’s result. I’m fond of Hughes as a person, grateful for his efforts in helping the team avoid the drop but sadly, an overall record of three wins in twenty-two outings simply isn’t good enough. Hughes never seemed to come to terms with his best starting XI, spent pre-season preparing with a back five, only for this strategy to be scrapped almost instantly and decisions such as these proved critical in his demise.
In terms of his replacement, speculation is already running wild, with the usual names of Allardyce and Moyes linked, the latter publicly declaring his interest in the vacancy. However, with two fixtures looming right away, one may think that the club already a candidate ready and waiting, certainly the press seem to think so with Sky Sports having reported that former RB Leipzig boss Ralph Hasenhuttle has agreed in principle to a three year contract on the South Coast. The former Austrian international has been out of work since the end of last season but is renowned for his high pressing approach. Nicknamed the ‘Klopp of the Alps’, Ralph favours an intriguing 4-2-2-2 formation and took Bundesliga newcomers Leipzig to the heady heights of second place in the 2016/17 season, securing Champions League football in the process. In addition, former head of recruitment Paul Mitchell currently resides at Leipzig and is rumoured to be interested in a return to St. Mary’s. It’s widely thought that since his departure, the transfer strategy has suffered dreadfully, with the ethos of ‘The Southampton Way’ seemingly lost in the process. The hire of Ralph along with the return of Paul Mitchell would be a massive coup for Saints and you sense that finally, after multiple underwhelming appointments, the board are finally showing a signal of intent/ambition.
In terms of the immediate future, Saints travel to Wembley Wednesday night to take on the might of Spurs, no doubt reeling having been overturned by Arsenal, 4-2 in the North London Derby.
In the dugout for this one will be long-time Saint, former goalkeeper and current member of the coaching staff, Kelvin Davis. In his pre match press conference, both his humbleness and passion for the club shone through. Kelvin had been out on an early morning run on Monday when he was called in by Saints following the development and for a man that has taken all things red and white to his heart during his 13 year tenure on the South Coast, you’d like to think the players would show a bit of fight under his stewardship. In all honesty though, anything gained at Spurs will be a bonus, such is their quality and the match at fellow strugglers Cardiff on Saturday is surely the more crucial of the two.
Hopefully by then, Ralph will be in place and Saints will be well on their way to a pivotal 3 points on the back of the infamous ‘new manager bounce’.

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