The first piece of silverware in the English football season will be awarded at Wembley Stadium on Sunday in the League Cup final, with Manchester United, looking to make it five wins in this tournament, taking on Southampton, who are seeking to win only the second major title in the club’s history.
And while the League Cup has lost some of its significance down the years, it’s an accolade both managers will be desperate to get their hands on under the iconic arch.
United boss Jose Mourinho has fared brilliantly in this competition during his time in England. Previously he’s won the trophy on a trio of occasions with Chelsea, often as a precursor to his side going on to achieve further successes. He’ll hope victory here can instil a strong winning mentality into his burgeoning group.
As for Southampton, days like this are rare. The last major final they made it to was the 2003 FA Cup and the club’s supporters have had to wait 41 years for a pot to put in the cabinet. Having performed so well to make it to this stage of the competition, Claude Puel and his players will be confident of completing the job.
Indeed, while Saints are the underdogs for this one, they’re not to be written off. As of yet they’ve not conceded a goal in the tournament, including over two legs against Liverpool in a memorable semi-final performance.
That’s something United must be wary of. But in Mourinho, they have a manager as adept at anyone in the business at masterminding his way through these big games. That’s surely got to count for a lot on Sunday.
Date: Sunday, February 26, 2017
Time: 11:30 a.m. (ET)
US TV: Live on beIN SPORTS
US streaming: Live on fuboTV (free 7-day trial)
What’s made Saints’ run to the final stage of this competition all the more impressive is that Puel has had to draft in different personnel, having lost some key men.
Star defender Virgil van Dijk and top scorer Charlie Austin have both been injured, while club captain Jose Fonte was sold to West Ham United in the January transfer window. Even so, Southampton have been cohesive, composed and clinical in all their League Cup matches to this point.
Crucially, they have momentum heading into the final too. After a poor start to 2017 in the Premier League, they found some verve again at Sunderland last time out, securing an emphatic 4-0 on the day. It’s a win that was inspired by January acquisition Manolo Gabbiadini, who has scored three goals in his two appearances for the club so far.
With the Italian up top, Saints have suddenly looked a threat in the final third again, with Nathan Redmond and Dusan Tadic linking up well with the former Napoli man. A midfield three of Steven Davis, James Ward-Prowse and Oriol Romeu is well balanced too.
Where Puel may be a little concerned is at the back. Fraser Forster has not been at his best this season, while the prospect of Jack Stephens and Maya Yoshida up against the imperious Zlatan Ibrahimovic will be a concern; they need to put in a display akin to their heroic effort at Anfield.
Southampton have made wonderful progress as a club down the years and continue to compete to a brilliant standard despite the constant turnaround in personnel. A trophy would be the cap on the super structures the club has put in place and the incredible recruitment they undertake year upon year.
Getting that first one under the belt feels important for Mourinho. Not only does a winning mentality coarse through the team as aforementioned, it gives the manager a safety net. The League Cup will not be the sum of the manager’s ambitions at Old Trafford, but it is at least something.
For a manager who prepares so throughly for finals, it was remarkable to see such a strong team fielded for the clash with Saint-Etienne on Wednesday in the UEFA Europa League, a tie that United were in total control of. Injuries to Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Michael Carrick during the match will likely see them miss out.
It leaves the Portuguese with some big decisions to make in his midfield selection. Paul Pogba and Ander Herrera have blossomed without Carrick in some recent encounters, and the injury to the veteran may prompt Mourinho into a more offensive lineup; Wayne Rooney, Marouane Fellaini, Jesse Lingard and Marcus Rashford will all be in contention to start if so.
Regardless of team selection, Mourinho will feel he can rely on some talismanic figures to help his side over the line here. Non more so than Ibrahimovic, who continues to make the difference when it matters for the Red Devils.
As aforementioned, the Southampton defensive core may be a little brittle if exposed and Yoshida in particular has struggled throughout his time in England against physical opponents. United must find a way to isolate their hulking No. 9 against those two.
United will be organized and aggressive in the early stages of this one, with Mourinho not wanting to give anything away cheaply to begin with. From there, expect the Red Devils to slowly turn the screw as the Portuguese’s teams so often do; stemming that mechanical pressure is the key to victory for Saints.
Key Battle – Oriol Romeu vs. Paul Pogba
So often in finals, with the match congested and conservative, midfields can become maelstroms. It’s where Romeu and Pobga will be seeking to secure a foothold for their respective outfits.
Romeu has been superb for Southampton this season. Previously of Barcelona, Chelsea and Valencia, his talent has never been disputed. However, he’s only really put everything together since his switch to the south coast, marshaling the Saints midfield with forcefulness and authority.
Pogba will have a job escaping his attentions. The Frenchman continues to make steady progress in United colors, with the club’s supporters learning he’s not the kind of player who will dominate matches from start to finish; he plays in dazzling flashes.
One of those flashes could be good enough to see United win the final, especially given Pogba has formed a strong affinity with Ibrahimovic on the field. Romeu must be vigilant to prevent the world’s most expensive player from wrestling the trophy back up north.