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Saturday, February 25

EFL Cup Final: Man United favoured vs. Southampton, but history offers the underdog hope

Beginning of the end for Rooney?

There has been much talk this week about Wayne Rooney's future, with speculation that he could depart for the Chinese Super League as soon as Tuesday. But it seems as if United's record goal scorer will delay his decision until the end of the season, despite not receiving the most stirring of testimonials from Jose Mourinho.
"You'll have to ask him," said the United manager this week. "I can't guarantee that I'm here next week. How can I guarantee that a player is here next season? What I can guarantee is that if Wayne one day leaves the club, it is not because I want him to leave the club. That's the only thing I can guarantee." 
What can also be more or less guaranteed is that unless there's an injury to someone like Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Rooney won't play a major role in big games for the rest of the season. So, even if he gets over the muscle strain that ruled him out of Wednesday's trip to St. Etienne, it remains to be seen what role Mourinho gives Rooney at Wembley.

Who is Southampton's biggest threat?

One of Southampton's big problems this season has been their inconsistency, which has even been seen within games. Claude Puel's side seem to play well for a short time but too often fail to take the chances they create and so do not get the result of which they're capable.
The lack of a clinical striker has been a problem: Charlie Austin has been injured since the start of December, while Shane Long is a fine player but not a natural poacher, and Jay Rodriguez and Nathan Redmond are basically wingers who chip in with goals when they can.
January signing Manolo Gabbiadini, though, has already scored three goals in just 163 minutes and is already Southampton's joint-third highest scorer in the Premier League. These are early days, and many strikers have started well but fizzled out, but it's possible that at £14.5million, Southampton could have one of the bargains of the season.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic scored twice in a straightforward win against Southampton.
The last time Manchester United played Southampton, Zlatan Ibrahimovic scored both goals in a 2-0 win.

Will rest benefit Southampton?

A trend of this season has been that having extended periods of rest can be crucial for a team's chances. It's not the only reason for Chelsea's dominance of the Premier League, but it's an important one.
Could it be significant, then, that United have played three times since Southampton beat Sunderland 4-0 on Feb. 11? Granted, the two-legged Europa League tie against St. Etienne and a relatively routine 2-1 FA Cup win over Blackburn were perhaps not excessively taxing, but while they've been playing, travelling and recovering, Southampton have merely been preparing.

Lessons from the past

In recent years the head-to-head record between the two teams is relatively even. United have won five of the nine league games since Southampton returned to the top flight in 2012, but the Saints have won the past two league games at Old Trafford.
But in cup competitions, it's a little more one-sided: Indeed, Southampton haven't beaten United in a knockout game since 1986, when they won a League Cup third-round replay 4-1, with two of the goals coming from an 18-year-old Matthew Le Tissier. A more famous win, though, came in 1976 when Southampton stunned United 1-0 in the FA Cup final.

History in the making for Saints?

This will be Southampton's first appearance in a League Cup final since 1979. On that day they lost 3-2 to Nottingham Forest, who a few weeks later would lift the European Cup. Brian Cough's side triumphed despite having enjoyed a few drinks -- apparently at the behest of their manager -- the previous evening. 
Southampton took the lead in the first half through David Peach, but by the second half, the Forest heads had cleared enough to score three times and lift the cup. That day is the only previous time Southampton have reached this stage of the tournament, and Sunday will be their first major final since the 2003 FA Cup decider, which they lost 1-0 to Arsenal.

A clash of contrasting managers

In terms of personality, if there are two less similar managers in football, then it is difficult to think of them. Mourinho is a journalist's dream, endlessly quotable and usually happy to talk. Puel, meanwhile, is almost willfully dull, preferring to keep his cards close to his chest. Further, if he does say anything of much interest, then he does it so quietly that you might miss it.
Not that either should necessarily be criticised for their approaches. They serve their own purposes, and while a manager who has plenty to say is entertaining for most of us, sometimes it's nice to have one who is a little more reticent.

The man in the middle

Andre Marriner will be in charge at Wembley, and, somewhat unusually, he comes with a glowing reference from at least one of the managers.
"I like the words that Marriner told us before the game," said Mourinho after United's 1-1 draw with Arsenal in November. "It was very simple, I don't want to be man of the match, I don't want to be seen, I want to help. He is right. He doesn't want to be the star; he is a good man and an honest ref. He tries always to be a referee with a lot of balance. I had a good feeling with Andre Marriner; he is the kind of referee that when he makes mistakes against my team, he has no intention."
(Mourinho then suggested Marriner should have given his side a penalty in that game, but you can't have everything.)

Landmarks on the line

Mourinho won the League Cup three times with Chelsea and the first triumph, in 2005, represented his first major trophy in English football. If United win on Sunday, he will be the fourth manager to win the competition with two different clubs, after Joe Mercer (Aston Villa and Manchester City), George Graham (Arsenal and Tottenham) and Ron Atkinson (Sheffield Wednesday and Aston Villa).
Victory will draw Mourinho level with Clough and Sir Alex Ferguson, both of whom had four wins, as the most successful managers in the cup's history. It would also be Rooney's fourth League Cup win, one fewer than record-holder Ian Rush, and would mean Zlatan Ibrahimovic has won a major trophy in five different countries.
Meanwhile, Puel would be the second French manager to win the trophy after Gerard Houllier, who was triumphant in 2001 and 2003. He would also continue a trend of new coaches being successful in the competition: Mourinho (2005), Juande Ramos (2008), Michael Laudrup (2013) and Manuel Pellegrini (2014) all won it in their first seasons in England.

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