Southampton seeking to gatecrash European party after Reds revival
Lee Gormley | March 21, 2016
Saints go marching on
In a Premier League season which has been littered with success stories, with Leicester City’s heroics taking centre stage, Southampton’s impressive climb up the table had somewhat slipped under the radar, until their gallant comeback over Liverpool.
The sight of Dutch boss Ronald Koeman charging down the sideline during the ecstasy of Sadio Mane’s late winner against Liverpool could ultimately be the defining image of this resurgent south coast club’s campaign.
Having found themselves 2-0 down at half-time in front of the St Mary’s crowd, the Saints brilliantly bounced back to emerge with a 3-2 victory, thanks to a crucial Graziano Pelle strike wedged between two Mane goals, with the result seeing them move into a promising seventh spot.
Koeman’s men are now 33/1 with Coral to earn a Champions League place, though 9/2 to end in the top six is more realistic for a side that have proven they are up for the fight in this dramatic top-flight campaign.
Pelle and co were driven by cup loss
This has been undoubtedly the most unpredictable top-tier term to date with Leicester taking a deserved, yet stunning, lead at the summit, while Tottenham battle them for supremacy and both Manchester clubs endure chaotic campaigns.
Southampton’s recent home revival has seen them move to within just four points of a top four position, three ahead of their previously downed opposition Liverpool and three behind Manchester United and West Ham United.
Earlier in the season, the Saints were on the receiving end of a devastating 6-1 Capital One Cup thrashing to the Reds from Merseyside, and fans would have been having flashbacks of that hapless result last weekend, but Italian hitman Pelle admitted his team were determined to avoid a repeat loss.
“We know that the first half was not us and we didn’t want to do again what happened in the cup,” stated the Italy international striker. “We came back with the right mentality. The guys were really back with energy and we did an amazing comeback. Everybody did an amazing job.
“I’m so happy for Sadio, but again the team did an amazing performance. We were strong at the end, believing until the end, and this is the character and spirit to achieve what we want to achieve.
“We know that we were really close to Liverpool. We knew that to go forward we had to win this game. They are our rival in the rankings. It’s an amazing win, but there are still many games to go, and we have to do the same.”
Saints to gatecrash European party?
Going into the international break, the Saints now sit narrowly below Man Utd and West Ham, and also possess a game in hand on the duo immediately above them, making for an interesting restart following this two-week layoff.
With those around them still battling in other competitions, as Liverpool fight on in the Europa League, Manchester City aim to conquer the Champions League and Man Utd seek FA Cup glory, Southampton will be hopeful of a successful run-in.
The Saints will need to be at full strength in order to clinch a European place when domestic duties recommence though, with their final seven clashes seemingly very testing. Leicester await them on their first game back after the break, while other outings against Everton, Man City and Spurs could decide their fate.
Among those decisive fixtures also lies a match-up with Rafael Benitez’s relegation battlers Newcastle United (7/4 to stay up), while encounters with rock-bottom Aston Villa and a stuttering Crystal Palace shouldn’t strike much fear into a momentous Saints side.
In order to end on a high, the south coast outfit will need luck in avoiding injuries to key players during the international gap and a consistent finish in form, with the likes of Pelle, Mane, Fraser Forster, Victor Wanyama, Virgil van Djik and Jose Fonte set to star heavily.
Strong end can set up promising 2016/17 term
Koeman, whose 53rd birthday followed his side’s win over Liverpool, jubilantly stormed down the touchline to celebrate with the players after Mane’s late winner at St Mary’s, with his outburst of emotions proving the importance of that recovery.
“It’s the first time I’ve run along the touchline to celebrate a goal like that – and the last time because I’m still tired,” declared the Dutchman.
“It’s also the sweetest comeback I’ve had as a coach – normally you don’t get the chance to do that from 2-0 down against Liverpool, they will kill you more than they did.
“That’s what makes it special and emotional. All the goals were fantastic and I’m proud of the team – we showed great spirit after half-time.”
With the Saints now sitting in a strong position for the final fixture hurdles, prospects are becoming more encouraging for next season, and a consistent end to the campaign will build a solid platform for the 2016/17 term.
If the rejuvenated south coasters can continue their surge after the break and secure a Europa League position, or maybe more in this ever-eventful season, then next term could be even more successful, providing their key members stay put at St Mary’s this summer.
Ranieri’s Foxes (50/1 for 2016/17 title) have proven this current campaign that the Premier League has become wide open, with the previous big four or main contenders having been dispelled into a wider range of title chasers, and it’s a success story that Southampton, among others, can learn from for the near future.
Europe the goal for marching Saints
Republic of Ireland frontman Shane Long is one of many Saints stars set for a massive summer at Euro 2016 in France, along with Pelle (Italy), Forster (England), Fonte (Portugal) and Steven Davis (Northern Ireland), and the Tipperary-born poacher is targeting a deserved European position for his club before then.
“That is an aim of ours,” stated Long when asked if the Southampton players had started thinking about Europa League and Champions League qualification.
“Obviously we want to better last season where we had a very good season after finishing seventh, and got our record points tally in the Premier League so it just shows where the club is going.
“We want to progress as a club and we’ve got the players that are proven at this level and we want to put it up to the best teams.
“I think a few of the top teams are underperforming as well, which might create a bit of a passage for us to sneak into a European place, so why not?”
After their Reds revival on home soil, European ambitions are well in reach for Koeman’s Saints, as they aim to maintain their impressive return to prominence this season and deliver a coveted top six or four finish, in what has already been an enthralling Premier League campaign to date.