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UP FOR THE CUP!

Friday saw the return to action for Saints’ Under-23s side as they welcomed Stoke City to Staplewood. The youngsters have been going great guns this season, as they look to gain promotion to Division 1 of Premier League 2, this being their second consecutive season in the lower tier. The first period of the match was cagey and bereft of chances in all truth, with the visitors arguably enjoying the better of the play. Tom O’Connor’s free kick looked promising, only for the Stoke wall to intervene, deflecting and thus reducing the strike’s power considerably, allowing goalkeeper Gyollai to comfortably collect.

Goalless it remained at the break but, following a short, sharp blow of his whistle, the referee signalled the resuming of play and Stoke continued to carry the greater threat. The visitors ramped up the pressure in the hope of breaking the deadlock with a series of corners, however, Saints backline did not waver. Having weathered the storm, Radhi Jaidi’s side seemed to spring to life. Dare Olufunwa surged down the right before cutting back for Jonathan Afolabi, who let the ball run for Nathan Tella, the former Arsenal man making no mistake, giving Saints a lead against the run of play.

Stoke will have cursed at failing to capitalise throughout a first half and Saints almost doubled their advantage shortly after the opener, Will Smallbone seeing his effort fly off of the crossbar. It wasn’t long before the second arrived though, The Potters failing to heed the previous warning. Defender Christophe Klarer displayed excellent vision, picking out Will Ferry with a beautiful diagonal pass from within his own half. Ferry cushioned down with his chest, before unleashing a left footed drive across the goalkeeper, almost certainly securing maximum points with ten minutes remaining. And that is precisely how it remained, with the win seeing Saints leap into first place in the table, Manchester United usurped, although admittedly the Red Devils have a game in hand.

The first team took a break from a testing league campaign and visited Pride Park, home of Derby County, for an FA Cup Third Round clash. With both sides priority clearly being league matters, Derby gunning for promotion whilst Saints try to stave off relegation, changes were predicted and that’s exactly how it played out, managers Lampard and Hasenhuttl electing for six switches from their sides most recent respective league fixture. Midfielder Callum Slattery was given a full debut, whilst Marcus Barnes made it to the bench for the first time in his professional career.

Hasenhuttl is often compared to Jurgen Klopp for his gegenpressing approach, nicknamed ‘Klopp of the Alps’ due to this and his Austrian beginnings and it was this strategy that paid off, leading to an early Saints lead. Fittingly decked in yellow and blue, especially being a cup encounter, memories were conjured up of the heroes of 1976 who wore precisely the same when historically coming out on top against First Division giants Manchester United. Bobby Stokes scored the most famous goal in Southampton’s history that sunny day under the towers of Wembley stadium, however, this time it was Nathan Redmond’s turn to inflict damage upon the opposition. The winger sought out the far corner and that’s exactly where the shot was headed, only for Rams captain Keogh to redirect past his own goalkeeper.

Following the opener, rather than pressing on and further exerting their authority, Saints struggled to carve out genuine opportunities, with the game entering a lull. With nothing but spells of possession, the atmosphere within Pride Park became subdued, and it wasn’t until Cedric found a pocket of space down the right channel, delivering for Long who headed narrowly over, that the visitors had cause to provide further vocal backing. Derby responded with a chance of their own, Marriott bursting forwards and finding Holmes, but the shot was tame and no test for Gunn in the Saints goalmouth. Saints almost padded their lead, a pinpoint whipped delivery from Ward-Prowse unbelievably evading Stephens at the back post when it seemed certain he would find the back of the net. The pairing of Marriott and Holmes was proving dangerous, with the later directing just wide following a one-two, practically the last action of the first period as Saints lead remained intact.

Having begun the first stanza ideally with a quick-fire strike, the visitors replicated after the break and in some fashion. The rejuvenated Nathan Redmond, who has been fantastic all season, doubled his tally, cutting in from a wide left position before unleashing a devastating curling shot into the goal’s far right corner, Rams goalkeeper Roos helplessly rooted to the spot as the net bulged. The advantage looked insurmountable, but the tide swiftly turned, Lawrence teeing up Marriott who struck a sweet volley to reduce the deficit. And just three minutes later, the away side having looked so comfortable, the comeback was complete when provider of the first, Lawrence struck a clinical arrowing shot, the efforts of an outstretched Gunn in vain more than anything.

The fightback no doubt came as a shock but Saints sought a response and a major chance soon came the way of the struggling Elyounoussi. Austin provided a lofted cross and the Norwegian, unmarked with seemingly all of the time in the world, could only direct his header straight at Derby’s goalkeeper. Amidst the despondency of the collapse, a positive moment came about with the introduction of young striker Marcus Barnes, who has been scoring goals for fun in the Under-23s, handed his debut as a reward. Redmond, in search of his hat-trick, forced a corner having been fed by Ward-Prowse before Nugent almost played a part in breaking Saints hearts. The former Pompey man, playing the role of panto villain, hellbent on endearing himself further to fans of Hampshire’s only club, squared for Marriott but he lacked composure and blazed over, meaning the score remained deadlock and a replay at St. Mary’s.

Following the match, you could sense frustration from both managers during their press conferences, a draw the worst possible outcome, the additional fixture bemoaned, adding to already hectic schedules and serving as another obstacle, with the potential to interfere with greater priorities. From a Saints standpoint, obviously Premier League survival is the key but when the fourth round draw was made, my desire to progress further strengthened tenfold. The reason behind this, you ask? A visit to Accrington Stanley, a ground I am yet to tick off in my hunt to visit all 92 Football League clubs and the possibility of a first meeting between the sides since 1960. The tie screams old fashioned Cup clash, Saints fans being housed in a terrace behind a goal adding to the sense of nostalgia, a throwback to yesteryear. Typically BT Sport have intervened, electing to screen and thus putting back the kick off time to 12:30pm, money coming before the consideration of fans once more but alas, if we see of the Rams, we’ll be present, singing loud and proud as ever.

With ‘auld lang syne’ bellowing and London illuminated by fireworks, the New Year was well and truly welcomed. In a football sense, a new calendar year can only mean one thing, with the thrusting open of January’s transferring and a month of speculation and transactions between clubs. Before I get to potential incomings, a couple of sad departures must be duly noted. Steven Davis, exemplary both on and off the field during his 6 and a half year stay on the South Coast, departed the club, returning to Ibrox for a second spell at Rangers. It only seems like yesterday that he was smashing in a belter at the Etihad in our first Premier League game since returning to the big time, what a fantastic servant, bargain, underrated and understated player he has been, I truly wish him all the best in Glasgow.

Manolo Gabbiadini has also exited, leaving permanently for Serie A side Sampdoria. Although he perhaps never quite lived up to his initial billing again, which saw him thunder a strike in on his debut versus West Ham, whilst also claiming a brace (technically a hat trick but for dubious officiating) in the EFL Cup Final, I still feel that the Italian is highly talented, intelligent and will thrive elsewhere providing sufficient service is given. It’s a great shame that it didn’t work out in the end but nevertheless, the memories brought about by those jubilant celebratory knee slides will forever live on.

Another potential casualty is goalkeeper Fraser Forster, with it being widely known that the man mountain is on a high wage, yet not anywhere near the first time, his last appearance coming on Boxing Day 2017, the 5-2 debacle away to Spurs. Rumours were rife this week about Forster’s mental state, a collapse sited following demotion to the bench and a relationship breakdown. If this is the case, I genuinely wish him all the best and hope that he gets the necessary help. In a Saints sense, however, it does appear as though he does not feature in Hasenhuttl’s plans, the same can be said for both Cedric (who has lost out to youth of late in Valery/Ramsey) and Wesley Hoedt.

On a lighter note, Everton winger Ademola Lookman has been deemed a potential target. The electric winger reportedly had opportunities to leave in the summer but opted to stay and fight for his spot at Goodison Park. However, with chances limited, he may look to seek out a new home in search of regular football. Hasenhuttl knows him well from a loan spell during his time at Leipzig, with the former Charlton academy product tallying five goals in 11 Bundesliga appearances and with the Austrian having already criticised the lack of pace within his squad, Lookman could be a fine addition. That being said, Everton are looking for in the region of £30 million and I find it hard to believe that Saints will shell out such an amount. An alternative pace wise could be the returning Josh Sims, who failed to make an impact at Championship strugglers Reading, seeing his loan stay cut short. Both Jake Hesketh and Jake Flanigan have returned from their spell with Burton also.

In other news, Saints women continued their fine form, maintaining their 100% league record as they thrashed Warsash 5-0 on their own turf. Amazingly, the goals were shared between five separate goal scorers with Georgie Freeland, Caitling Collighan, Emily Wernham, Ellie Chaffe and Shelly Provan all adding their names to the scoresheet. The deficit could have been extended, Emma Godden winning a penalty but unfortunately, her effort came off the crossbar. Still, I’m sure this didn’t take the shine off too much, the result keeping Saints top of the division, if only by goal difference, Oxford City also having 21 points after seven rounds of matches.

The men’s first team make the trip to the King Power Stadium this weekend, with the Foxes likely seeking a response having been overturned by League 2 Newport County in the FA Cup. Since his departure to the East Midlands, Saints have been unable to get one over on former boss Puel, who has racked up impressive victories this season against Chelsea and Manchester City respectively. However, despite Leicester’s lofty current position of seventh, many fans have become disgruntled with Puel’s playing style lamented, as was the case during his time at St. Mary’s. With limited attacking options (Ings/Obafemi out with injury, Gabbiadini sold and Austin banned following a gesture made to Man City supporters), the fixture will be a tough proposition. Bearing this in mind, this should lead to more opportunities for youth, such as Barnes and the returning Gallagher and hopefully they can contribute to a positive result on Saturday.

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