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Can Southampton end their 41-year trophy drought?

Saturday 25th February 2017
Sunday afternoon will mark a momentous occasion for the players and supporters of Southampton as they prepare to take on Manchester United in the EFL Cup final. Saints are aiming to win their first major honour since lifting the FA Cup in 1976 and as the showpiece event at Wembley approaches: can Claude Puel's side triumph?
Although Southampton have progressed to a major cup final, their league form has been unpredictable this season. In Claude Puel's first campaign at the helm, the French manager failed to prevent his side suffering six defeats in seven games, which stretched from the end of December to the beginning of this month. After their recent demolition of relegation-threatened Sunderland, the Saints sit 11th in the Premier League table. While their position signifies respectability, a lack of goals - just 28 in 25 league games, has left much to be desired.

In the EFL Cup, it's been a different story for the south coast club. On their road to Wembley, Southampton dispatched four fellow Premier League sides without conceding a goal. A 2-0 victory in the 3rd round at home to Crystal Palace, with goals courtesy of Charlie Austin and youngster Jake Hesketh, set up an encounter with Sunderland. Sofiane Boufal's stunning strike settled the contest against the Black Cats, and next up was a trip to the Emirates.

Saints eased past Arsenal, with efforts from Dutch midfielder Jordy Clasie, and Ryan Bertrand sending Puel's side into the last four. With a place in the final in sight, Southampton refused to be denied and battled past Liverpool, winning both legs 1-0. Goals from Nathan Redmond and Shane Long had earned their side the chance to taste success in a major competition for the first time in 41 years. Only Manchester United remains standing in their way.
Despite being sixth in the league table, Man United are a formidable team this season. Jose Mourinho's side are still left standing in three cup competitions: the EFL Cup; a quarter-final in the FA Cup against Chelsea awaits, and they also progressed to the last 16 of the Europa League. But while there are other distractions for the Manchester club, their Portuguese manager will ensure his players stay focused on the game ahead as they attempt to secure their second trophy of the season after winning the Community Shield in August.

Mourinho has a strong attachment to the League Cup as it was the first piece of silverware he secured in English football, and he's gone on to triumph in the competition twice more since, with the last success coming two seasons ago while at Chelsea. However, Southampton don't just have to contend with a ruthless manager intent on destroying their dreams; they will also encounter several exceptional attacking talents who have the ability to brush them aside.

The world's most expensive player, Paul Pogba, was signed for games of this magnitude and could make a big impact if given the space to roam around in dangerous areas of the pitch. Juan Mata is also capable of unlocking a stubborn defence with a moment of magic. While in wide areas, depending on who features, Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial have the pace to dismantle Saints on the counter attack. Lastly, the focal point of the Man United side, the majestic Swede. Zlatan Ibrahimovic has scored 24 times in 42 appearances in his debut season at Old Trafford, and he will be determined to affect the outcome of Sunday's final.

Southampton are competing against some outstanding individuals, but they also possess quality players of their own. Fraser Forster, an England international with nine clean sheets this season in the Premier League, will have to produce his best to prevent a star-studded Man United side breaching him. In defence, Virgil van Dijk has been excellent this campaign and caught the attention of England's biggest clubs, but unfortunately, injury rules him out of the EFL Cup final.
This could give Martin Caceres, the Saints recent arrival on a free transfer, the opportunity to make his debut. After playing for Barcelona and Juventus during his career, as well as helping Uruguay to success in the 2011 Copa America, Caceres has the credentials to step in and perform. One man who must deliver an impressive display is Oriol Romeu. Throughout this campaign, the defensive midfielder has shown skill and reliability to shield the backline; it's imperative the Spaniard brings his top game to Wembley.

If Southampton's defensive unit stays solid, they will also require their stars at the other end of the pitch to provide a threat. Charlie Austin was producing up front, scoring 6 Premier League goals in 13 games, before injury prevented him adding to that tally. Now, the onus falls on £17 million January signing, Manolo Gabbiadini. The Italian striker has already demonstrated his goalscoring ability, hitting three in his opening two appearances for the Saints. Can Gabbiadini leave an everlasting impression on the club's biggest clash of the season?

Southampton have the quality to cause an upset; however, if you're still not convinced, maybe Matt Le Tissier can change your mind. The Saints legend made a list for Sky Sports of six reasons why they can win the EFL Cup.

1 - Defensive masters . Five EFL Cup games played this season. Five clean sheets.

2 - Better rested . The Southampton players have enjoyed a two-week break; while Man United have played three games during that time.

3 - Henrikh Mkhitaryan absence . The talented Armenian was injured in the game against St Etienne and will be a big loss for Mourinho's team.

4 - The form of Romeu . He has been crucial this season and will be vital for protecting the defence in the final.

5 - The Gabbiadini effect . The striker has made a flying start and given his side more belief going forward.

6 - History on the Saints side . The clubs have met only once before in a cup final, with Southampton coming out on top in the 1976 FA Cup.
Due to having players who possess big game experience and the attacking weapons at their disposal, Man United will begin the game as favourites. However, Puel's side are in with a decent chance. If Southampton want to rewrite the record books, by winning the League Cup for the first time in the club's history, they must do certain things to the best of their ability. Saints have to take the initiative, they can't afford to let their opposition settle, and they should look to cause problems from the very first whistle.

Mistakes need to remain limited, particularly in defence where they will be punished to the highest extent. Keeping hold of possession is important and up front, the Saints attackers need to show clinical finishing. When an opportunity presents itself - take it. Finally: possibly the most crucial aspect; when Southampton step on to the pitch, their players must believe they can lift the trophy come the end of the game. The club came agonisingly close to winning the FA Cup in 2003, losing 1-0 to Arsenal in the final, but if they perform on Sunday, their wait for a major trophy could finally be brought to an end.

The EFL Cup final between Manchester United and Southampton takes place Sunday, 26th February, kick-off 4:30pm.
Danny Glendenning

Passions include reading, sport, and nights out with friends. A football fanatic whose writing career began in May 2016. Now 30 years old, lives in South Yorkshire - local team is Doncaster Rovers, although heart lies with Arsenal. Contributing editor for It's Round And It's White. Current claim to fame is an interview with Ron Atkinson. Always looking for work, either editing or writing. Contact via email: Dannysg1988@outlook.com. Or Twitter: @DannySG1988.



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