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Manchester United v Southampton

EFL Cup Final

Sunday, February 26th, Wembley 4.30pm

by John Spillane

When the semi-final draw paired Manchester United with Hull City and Liverpool with Southampton most people expected the final to be a heavy weight contest between the two bitter rivals from the North West. In the end, Hull City made it tough but eventually failed to overcome Jose Mourinho’s team but Claude Puel’s Saints beat Liverpool home and away to make it to Wembley in a pairing which will evoke memories for some of the 1976 FA Cup Final. Back then a goal from Bobby Stokes gave the team from the South Coast, operating in the second division, one of the greatest days in their history as they shocked the red hot favourites with a 1-0 victory.

Despite the probable injury losses of Henrik Mikhitaryan and Michael Carrick, Manchester United go into the final as favourites. There could even be a place in the starting lineup for Wayne Rooney in what is looking more and more as if it will be his last season at the club. Mourinho, whose first trophy in England was the League Cup in 2005 when Chelsea beat Liverpool, has his team in fine form with six wins out of their last seven competitive games, and only a single defeat in their past 25 matches. Goals are coming from Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Paul Pogba’s contribution to the team has become more noticeable in recent times. The defence has tightened up with clean sheets in six of their last seven games.

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Eight years ago Southampton had fallen on hard times and were languishing in League 2. Since then under the guidance of first Alan Pardew, followed by Nigel Adkins, Mauricio Pochettino and Ronald Koeman they have regained and solidified their top flight status. Thanks to smart signings combined with their academy graduates they continue to outperform clubs with much larger budgets. Overcoming both Arsenal and Liverpool proves that this has been no easy journey to the final, but current form is a concern. Three defeats in their last four outings, added to an early season 2-0 defeat at Old Trafford does not inspire confidence for Sunday’s showpiece occasion. A defence once built around the strength and pace of Jose Fonte and Virgil Van Dijk is now missing both. Fonte left for West Ham and the Dutchman Van Dijk’s ankle injury will prevent his taking part, so recent signing, ex Barcelona and Juventus defender Martin Caceres may get an opportunity to make his debut.

In what is likely to be a low scoring occasion, Southampton are yet to concede a goal in the competition with triumphs over Crystal Palace 2-0, Sunderland 1-0, Arsenal 2-0 and Liverpool 2-0 on aggregate. Manchester United’s path has seen them get past Northampton 3-1, Manchester City 1-0, West Ham 4-1 and eventually Hull City 3-2 on aggregate.

In the end it may come down to each team’s potential match winners and in that area United have the advantage.

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