An intriguing match-up in the EFL Cup final at Wembley sees two managers appointed last summer aim to secure the first trophy of their respective tenures, as Jose Mourinho’s Manchester United take on Claude Puel’s Southampton.
It is a meeting that brings about recollections of when the sides met in the 1976 FA Cup final, where a Bobby Stokes goal gave the then Second Division Saints the proudest moment of their history. And although victory here would not be quite as much of an upset, the South coast club are undoubtedly the underdogs again this time around.
As far as form is concerned, Man Utd are currently on as good a run as anybody, with only one defeat in all competitions since November. It took him some time to find a settled side that he could rely upon, but Mourinho has begun to get the best out of his expensively assembled squad, and it seems only a matter of time until they establish themselves in the Premier League’s top four once again.
Victory over Saint Etienne in the last 32 of the Europa League on Thursday came at a cost as the calming influence of Michael Carrick, and the driving force from midfield that is Henrikh Mkhitaryan both limped off, with the Armenian in particular unlikely to figure here. However, there seems to be no stopping Zlatan Ibrahimovic in his tracks, and after scoring twice against Southampton in the Premier League back in August he will be looking to torment them again here on his way to adding another piece of silverware to his sizeable cabinet.
The route to the final included a Manchester derby victory, but the toughest test actually came from Hull City in the semi-finals, where they were pushed all the way only for their superior quality to shine through. As for Southampton, nobody could begrudge them a place at Wembley, keeping five successive clean sheets including a convincing win at Arsenal and a richly deserved success over Liverpool in the last four.
That rearguard action they produced on Merseyside a little over a month ago is the kind of display that Puel prides himself on as a coach. The game plan was carried out to the letter in a flawless show of organisation led by Maya Yoshida, who has had to step up in recent weeks due to defensive linchpin Virgil van Dijk’s untimely injury. The Dutchman is still missing, so what a time it is for the albeit experienced Martin Caceres to potentially make his debut.
Form in the Premier League has been largely disappointing for Southampton since Christmas, but they still lie in a secure mid-table position, and won their last match in handsome fashion at Sunderland. January signing Manolo Gabbiadini has hit the ground running with three goals in his first two appearances, so he will be hoping to propel his new club to glory here.
Man Utd – who last won this competition in 2010 – will be expected to have the vast majority of possession, so Southampton will be intent on cutting the supply line to Ibrahimovic and preventing Paul Pogba from enjoying too much time on the ball, while they will also be wary of the pace the Red Devils have in wide areas.
Indeed, that midfield battle is where it could possibly be won and lost, with Oriol Romeu playing a key role for Southampton as he attempts to shield the back four. Extra time and penalties is a possibility, but it will be fascinating to see who emerges with the headlines. After all, Wayne Rooney is still knocking around…
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