Ahead of the EFL Cup final, we're getting the thoughts of some experienced Southampton reporters. First up is the Southern Daily Echo's Adam Leitch...
How does it feel to see Southampton in a major final again?
“It’s been a long wait. I’ve often griped a little bit that for a club the size and stature of Southampton, to have only won one major piece of silverware and only had a couple of other major finals is a bit of an underachievement, so I think it’s long overdue.
“They’ve had league success, but they’ve probably hit a little bit of a glass ceiling, so success in a cup is the next logical progression in my mind for them.
it's an amazing moment for the city. you can sense the excitement.adam leitch
southern daily echo
“If they’re going to have ambitions to move on and progress beyond the pigeon hole they’ve got themselves in, which is very admirable and very good, if they want to attract even better players and be taken very seriously as a club in the shake-up to break into that top six on a regular basis, they need some success to prove that as well. If you’re not going to do that through the league, and that’s obviously not going to happen this season, then a cup win is the obvious way to go.
“The other thing about it is that it’s an amazing moment for the city as well. The club is still, for all its ambition, largely a provincial club. It’s support base in terms of its regular supporters coming through the turnstiles are generally based within the locality of the club, and it’s an absolutely massive deal for the community. You can sense the excitement all around the city as the game gets closer. From that point of view, it’s a huge milestone as well."
How big an achievement would it be for the club to win, especially given their route to this point?
“I get that not every club they’ve played has exactly stuck out their strongest team, but nonetheless I have to dismiss that argument somewhat, because I would also counter Southampton haven’t always put out their strongest team, and ultimately they’ve gone through Premier League clubs only.
“When you look back to 2003 and the FA Cup run, they had what most people considered the dream draw. With playing well, there was no reason they shouldn’t have got through to the final, but that’s not been the case this time round. They’ve had to beat some good teams, and they’ve done that.
“The pinnacle was the semi-final against Liverpool. I remember after the Arsenal win, at the Emirates, there was that buzz of excitement waiting for the draw, and everybody was saying ‘As long as it’s not Liverpool, we’re alright. Or, if it has to be them, as long as the second leg’s at home…’ and then it came out it was Liverpool with the second leg at Anfield, and there was almost a sense of deflation, but then they go and get through. That’s a massive achievement, whether Liverpool were playing well or badly.
“There’s only one more step now, one more game, to get the trophy. Yes, Man United are the favourites and deserve to be so, but it’s a one-off and, if they win it, it will be an incredible achievement."
How do you rate the team’s chances against United?
“It’s right that United are favourites. If I look on balance, they’re more likely to win than Southampton, but United have got plenty of weaknesses.
“Yes, they do have a lot of firepower, but defensively they are definitely suspect. They’re going to be bang up for it, though. Mourinho’s going to want that trophy at United, so it’s going to be a very difficult game.
“For me, a bit of the key is going to be can Saints keep it tight in those early 20, 25 minutes? If they conceded in that period, I think it would be very hard for them to come back, but the longer they can keep it goalless – or even better if they can score – the greater their chances are, because they look very dangerous on the break as well.
“What both managers do in terms of selection – and particularly Southampton, in terms of the formation they play – will have a significant bearing, and I desperately hope Claude sticks with what worked so well against Sunderland. If he does that, I think he’s got a side who are confident, comfortable playing in that way, and they can give anyone a game.
“This is not the United of ten years ago under Ferguson. This is a very beatable team. United do deserve to start as favourites, but it is a good chance for Saints to win."
Which players really need to have a big game for Southampton?
“I think everyone would say Romeu. He’s been absolutely outstanding this season. They’ll need him again shielding the back four, because United have a lot of players who will drop off Ibrahimović and try to pick up scraps – Juan Mata, for example – so Romeu will be key in closing that space between the lines.
“One of their best attacking threats for me is Ryan Bertrand. He’s absolutely tremendous. When he’s switched on, he’s such a massive player for Saints and has been very good recently. I think he could potentially have a huge impact.
“Steven Davis obviously is going to captain them and is going to have to be a leader for them.
“I could say Gabbiadini, but that goes without saying. If they play the 4-2-3-1 formation they played at Sunderland then this could be the perfect stage for Dušan Tadić to really show what he’s about.
“We know what an amazing talent he is and how hard he is to pick up when he’s in that free role. He’s spoken so confidently about playing in that position, and how he’s on the same wavelength as Gabbiadini, so it might just be a game where a little bit of magic from him can unlock the door.
“The other thing I’d say is we don’t know who’s going to play at centre-half, but they’re obviously going to have to deal with Ibrahimović – one of the best strikers in European football for a decade, and someone who’s still very dangerous. I can’t say who that key player is, because I don’t know which two Claude will play, but they’ve got a monumental threat to deal with. For me, that decision and the formation are the two absolute key calls that Claude has to get right if Saints are going to win."
What would be your preferred line-up?
“I would stick with what they played against Sunderland. I do feel a bit sorry for Shane Long in that, but I’d stick with it. They haven’t got any worries about tiredness, and that team played together and played well.
“Ok, it was Sunderland on a bad day, but they played really, really well. It was a performance far above a lot of what we’ve seen from Southampton recently. Playing in that formation, they obviously understood it and were comfortable. They’ve got to be confident after that, and I would just stick with it."