26/02/2017: Man United 3-2 Saints
So Saints' long wait for a second major trophy goes on. The team could hardly have done any more in their efforts to get the job done. It was a near perfect team display, with only a series of individual errors proving costly by the end.
Back in 2003 in Cardiff, there seemed to be an overriding feeling that Saints players and fans were just happy to be there above anything else. This time it was all about winning. The Saints support was a bit flat for spells in the first half, but for the most part outstanding. The celebrations after the goal, the Gabbiadini scarf waving and the Liebherr lights show were all fantastic moments to be a part of. The team looked in no way overawed by the occasion either. Several players put in their best ever performances in a Saints shirt, if not close.
Puel got his game plan spot on. As with Liverpool in the semi-final, Saints were cautious in the initial stages, with the midfield sitting deep to deny United space. The team gradually pressed more frequently as first half progressed, with Saints' wide men doubling up on United's full-backs. Even at 2-0 down Puel's men had still been the superior outfit. Saints hammered United for the first 25 minutes of the second-half, although did tire slightly during the last quarter, which proved decisive. Even with that said, there's no denying that the best team lost.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic may have scored two, but our Italian superstar Manolo Gabbiadini got three. He probably would have gone home with the match ball were it not for some diabolical officiating which denied him what would have been the opener. Gabbiadini has already netted as many goals from open play as Charlie Austin has from his 19 appearances, and is also now level with Shane Long and Jay Rodriguez. You have to wonder how much better we would be doing had he been here all season.
James Ward-Prowse has always had his detractors, but they surely will be shrinking by the week at this stage. He was outstanding yesterday. Aside from the superb set piece delivery we've long since come to expect, he's now proven to be a quality ball winner in the middle of the park. He expertly drifted wide when Saints were on the offensive yesterday, and expended limitless energy in his efforts to push the team on.
Maya Yoshida has embraced the added responsibility being the senior centre back brings. He read the game superbly, and showed confidence and assurance when bringing the ball forward. Yoshida had a poor season under Koeman in 2015/16, but has generally been very good since joining in 2012.He has benefitted from Puel's rotation policy, coming into the team fresh and match fit.
Saints players and fans did themselves proud by sadly it wasn't to be. With any luck we can use this as a springboard to greater things. Barring some Leicester style miracle Saints have most likely already hit the celling in terms of what can be achieved in the Premier League. Giving it a real good go in the cups should continue to take precedence. It was a fantastic occasion, and one which needs repeating sooner rather than later.
Forster: 6. Slow to react for at least one of the goals conceded, but did pull off a couple of decent saves
Cedric: 8. Strong in the tackle at the back, with his speed causing problems for United in the attacking third
Stephens: 8. Passing a bit hit and miss, but defensively solid with some tough tackles
Yoshida: 8. As mentioned above, led by example. Decision making largely excellent
Bertrand: 8. Showed all his big match experience, shining at both ends of the pitch
Romeu: 7. Went to sleep a bit for the second United goal, but generally distributed the ball well. Competed fairly well off the ball considering he picked up an early booking
Davis: 8. As usual always knew where to be. A good range of passing
Ward-Prowse: 9. Covered so much ground. A large chunk of Saints' big chances came through him
Redmond: 8. Best showing since signing last summer. Caused all sorts of difficulties for United's full backs with his incessant pressing and direct running
Tadic: 7. Trickery and clever footwork opened up space for Saints in dangerous positions
Gabbiadini: 9. Movement in and around the box superb. Looks dangerous every time he gets the ball
Boufal: Usually ran into a crowd of players whenever he took the ball forward
Long: Made a few effective late runs
Rodriguez: Not on long enough to have any sort of impact