15:00 KO (BST); Saturday 12th August; St. Mary’s Stadium (Southampton, England)
While key players from each team will miss the game through the evil that is known as transfer speculation, Southampton will be keen to push away the furore surrounding their petulant captain and continue the momentum which saw them to 8th position in May.
With only one significant signing so far this summer, the biggest addition to their squad is arguably their new manager and Mauricio Pellegrino’s biggest challenge will be to deliver consistency to a team who have proven they have enough quality already within their ranks.
Paul Clement will be aiming to continue his Welsh revival after guiding the Swans to safety following his arrival at the club in January. With four wins from the final five league games, Swansea are a team who looked to have turned a corner under their young manager although their away form is still a cause for concern given their recent record.
This opening fixture will provide a perfect opportunity for both sides to gain a strong footing for the coming season and with technical football preferred by both managers, it will be one of the more alluring games of the weekend despite its relatively lower profile.
Last Time Out
SOUTHAMPTON2 – 0 Sevilla (Friendly)
A mixed batch of friendly matches was completed with an impressive win against good opposition for the Saints. Southampton matched the Champions League side in technical ability and proved to be the more ruthless side in front of goal to run out comfortable winners in a lively encounter.
Manolo Gabbiadini again found the target for Southampton, which continues a promising pre-season for the Italian, with Jack Stephens also capping a good season with an unexpected goal.
The Saints centre-back began this game looking nervous but grew in stature as the game progressed and looks to have a big season ahead of him in an area of the pitch which is causing much speculation for his team.
With Gabbiadini running at the point of the attack and ably supported by England pair of James Ward-Prowse and Nathan Redmond, while Dušan Tadić pulled the strings, it’s a familiar-looking attack for Southampton, but also an one looking ready for the upcoming season.
SWANSEA CITY 4 – 0 Sampdoria (Friendly)
It was a big win and a big result for Swansea who outclassed the Italians in all areas of the pitch. While it’s dangerous to read too much into a friendly game, Swansea swept aside recent talk that Sigurdsson’s potential departure would cause them a major creative problem.
Leroy Fer produced the opening goal with a towering header to give the Swans a lead at half-time. It was the midfielder’s third goal in four games and he looked as sharp as that statistic suggests.
Another pre-season goal from Tammy Abraham will serve to raise confidence in his abilities as he looks to make the jump from the Championship to the Premier League this season. While he was taken off with a foot injury, it was confirmed after the game it was only a precautionary measure and he will be fully fit and ready for the new season.
Although there are no injury worries ahead of the opening league game, the ongoing situation with Virgil van Dijk will prevent the Dutch defender from being available for selection.
The strong line-up fielded against Sevilla last weekend is likely to remain largely unchanged for the visit of Swansea, though there could be a few minor alterations made by the manager, notably with new arrivals Jan Bednarek pushing for a start at centre-back and Mario Lemina in midfield.
Swansea City Lineup
While Tammy Abraham left the field limping against Sampdoria, the Chelsea loanee
is expected to be fit for the first game of the season, unlike Fernando Llorente who looks to be ruled out through an arm injury.
Further injuries to Sung-Yueng Ki (knee) and Nathan Dyer (Achilles) are more serious and will see the pair miss several weeks of action for the Swans. Gylfi Sigurdsson is also unlikely to feature until his future is decided in one way or another while the big choice for the Swans is whether to start Leon Britton or Roque Mesa
Key Battle: Manolo Gabbiadini vs Alfie Mawson
One of the deciding battles in this fixture is set to take place in the Swansea penalty area. Gabbiadini made a massive impact on his Premier League arrival, seemingly scoring for fun, however, the latter games saw him struggle after he had returned from a short injury.
After looking bright in Southampton’s recent friendlies, he will again provide the main goal threat for the Saints and his prowess in the box is likely to win his side a few games in the next few months.
Alfie Mawson is not only the player to be tasked with stopping the Italian, he could also provide a threat on goal himself having scored four in last season’s league campaign.
After an impressive season last year, he will continue his development with the experience he picked up and his commanding presence and ability to bring the ball out of defence will play a key part in Clement’s overall strategy with the Welsh side.
The need to lead
With Virgil van Dijk still an ongoing problem for the South coast side, his departure to a Premier League rival will have a greater impact than losing a talented defender.
Southampton arguably already possess players capable of adequately taking his place in the centre of defence, a point proven in the second half of last season in which the Dutch defender remained side-lined with injury.
What will be a greater loss for the team, however, is a natural leader on the pitch. Steven Davis has carried the armband for the Saints in recent games and could well become the permanent club captain if van Dijk does leave.
With many admirable qualities which make Davis a worthy choice, he is neither vocal nor assertively inspirational on the field of play and this is also an attribute missing from many other Southampton players alongside him.
However Pellegrino solves this problem, a strong leading presence on the field will make a huge difference for the Saints this season.
The arrival of Mario Lemina in a reported £18m deal from Juventus came as a surprise to many. With Pellegrino stating in an interview following the Sevilla game that he knew nothing about the defensive midfielder, perhaps this was more of a smokescreen than an admission to the media.
Having played under the influential Marcelo Bielsa and been part of a team who were last season’s Champions League runners up, the 23-year-old has some impressive credentials on his CV already.
It will be intriguing to see exactly how he fits into the engine room of Pellegrino’s plans alongside Davis and the impressive Oriol Romeu.
As a word of caution though, a big money transfer does not always come with a guarantee of success. Sofiane Boufal was the previous record signing for the Saints following his £16m move from Nice last year and the Moroccan forward has struggled for form and game time to the point that he still remains on the periphery of the first team.
Roque Mesa vs Leon Britton
Another record signing who will need to establish himself in his new midfield is Roque Mesa who arrived from Las Palmas for £11m earlier this summer.
Mesa is a midfielder who is ready-made for a central role in Swansea’s passing style, completing the second highest number of passes in La Liga at an accuracy of 91.4% which was the fourth highest rate in the division.
Meanwhile, Leon Britton is a firm favourite with the Welsh sides fans and is the player who helped Paul Clement turn the Swans fortunes around earlier this year. It will be more than sympathetic reasoning which could sway Clement’s decision in the English midfielders favour though.
He provides a driving character which lifts the team around him and is a reliable figure in the defensive midfield position.
While Clement has indicated that the pair might play together, perhaps with Mesa sitting at the front of the midfield diamond as the creative playmaker, he also thought this was not an immediate solution.
This suggests that Wayne Routledge will continue in midfield for the Swans after a successful pre-season playing this role rather than on the wing which is where he was traditionally used.
PREDICTION: Southampton 1 – 1 Swansea City
Both teams will view this game as a good chance to secure an early win in the league and equally, both teams will look to play technically good football in an attempt to claim all three points.
While Swansea are the team in better form coming out of the summer months, the real games start here and I think Paul Clement will ultimately be pleased with a battling score-draw.
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