25/02/2017: League Cup Final Preview
One of the most remarkable things about Saints' run to Wembley is how incongruous it's been compared to what's been served up in the league throughout the season. From the first game against Crystal Palace to that amazing night at Anfield, Saints have displayed resilience and character so often lacking in Premier League contests. The team has worked effectively as a unit in all areas of the pitch, creating chances and giving very little away at the other end. The football has been easy on the eye, and even with big injury setbacks Saints were able to defy all the odds to reach Wembley. Mauricio Pochettino and Ronald Koeman had teams seemingly destined for glory, and although they succeeded in taking the club forward in the league, they were unable to deliver in knockout situations. The side that Claude Puel presides over is rank average compared to what we've grown accustomed to in previous years, yet they are on the verge of writing themselves into history in a way that Pochettino and Koeman's teams never did.
Saints fans have craved cup success for so long. Over previous years we've always taken big numbers away from home and filled St Mary's at even a whiff of glory. We were unable to sell out the original allocation for the Liverpool trip, though. It's been a long season with some expensive European jaunts, but part of the reason for the disappointing take up may have had to do with fans just being ground down by constant disappointment in cup competitions. Surely we'd somehow bottle it like we always do. Saints appeared to have a clear run to the FA Cup final in 2014, only to put in a flat display in the 5th round at Sunderland. After some good work in the earlier rounds Koeman's teams were humiliated at Sheffield United and then at home to Liverpool the following season. The less said about Midtjylland the better. Prior to the Liebherr era Saints were knocked out by lower league opposition with such regularity that those results could barely be described as upsets. The way the whole JPT experience was embraced in 2009/10 shows what cup success really means to Saints supporters. Winning tomorrow would mean so much more than it did during our only previous visit to the new Wembley.
Looking through the Saints squad there are so many individual stories ready to be written. Will Jack Stephens get the chance to pull off a Chris Baird type performance on the big stage or will Martin Caceres come in and make an instant impact up against his former Barcelona teammate Zlatan Ibrahimovic? Could James Ward-Prowse finally come of age and channel fellow Pompey boy Bobby Stokes or might Sofiane Boufal provide more of that magic he displayed against Sunderland? Will United be able to handle Manolo Gabbiadini's touch and movement or will Shane Long strike late again? Don't count out young Josh Sims making the difference if he's given the chance. Any match winner will have their name etched in history forever.
If Saints are to win their second major trophy tomorrow, who better to do it against than the team they beat to win their first. United have often been good opponents for Saints, and not just in 1976. We've given them many tough games since promotion, with two historic wins at Old Trafford. Nobody will ever forget the three consecutive victories at The Dell in the 1990s either. None of the Saints players who take the field tomorrow would likely get into United's starting eleven, but the same could be said of Liverpool in the semi-final. Logic dictates United will win comfortably, but Saints have defied logic throughout this tournament already. Who's to say we won't do it once again.