16:00 KO (BST); Sunday 15th October; St Mary’s (Southampton, England) Sky Sports
From the days of Matt Le Tissier bending the ball around Newcastle goalkeepers, the Magpies have historically found Southampton to be something of a bogey team. With only a single goal from their previous nine home matches, though, many Southampton fans would gladly welcome Le Tissier back onto the pitch on Sunday in a bid to galvanise their “goals for” column. Mauricio Pellegrino came to the Premiership with a reputation for producing teams who play attacking football and his first major test will challenge those credentials.
For Rafael Benitez, attacking in football takes a much more measured approach, although it’s no secret that he too would be happy to dip into the market for a new main striker. After having Pellegrino serve him as his first-team coach during Benitez’s time in charge at Liverpool, both managers will be well acquainted with each other when they meet again on Sunday. It remains to be seen if the master still has any hidden tricks he can use to outsmart his old student.
LAST TIME OUT
Stoke City 2 – 1 SOUTHAMPTON (Premiership)
The Saints were left empty-handed after yet another game in which they were unable to punish their opponents whilst on top of the game. After neutralising the early threat posed by Stoke, Southampton dominated the majority of the match with over 70% possession but little to show for it. Lacking craft and guile in attack has been a season-long problem for Mauricio Pellegrino and he looks no closer to finding the answer although Manolo Gabbiadini did look a lot sharper than he has in recent weeks when he came off the bench for the final quarter of the game.
The defensive side of the Southampton squad still look in good shape despite conceding two goals and a penalty. With Virgil van Dijk restored back to the starting lineup, he repaid his managers faith by putting in the strongest display for the away team despite giving away a sloppy penalty against Saido Berahino. Maya Yoshida alongside him was also impressive, not least because of his acrobatic scissor kick which drew his side level. If only the players in front of him could also perform such wonders, Southampton would be a lot higher up the table at this point in the season.
NEWCASTLE UNITED 1 – 1 Liverpool (Premiership)
Newcastle came away from the game with an unlikely but thoroughly deserved point after another resilient home game. Liverpool started strongly and were unlucky not to have already opened the scoring when Philippe Coutinho curled a magnificent 25-yard shot into the top corner of the net after half an hour. It was looking like Liverpool would run away with the points but some amateurish defending seven minutes later gave the Magpies a route back into the game.
The second half saw Liverpool creating many more chances without laying siege on the opposition. While the Newcastle players had a distinct height and physical advantage over the Liverpool forwards, they also stood mentally firm with good shape and discipline in their play preventing the Reds gaining a real foothold. Once again, Mikel Merino was Newcastle’s stand-out player with two interceptions and four blocks made during his 74 minutes on the pitch. The much-maligned Mohamed Diamé could also have won the game with a header after he entered the fray with only added time remaining, however, a draw was a fair reflection of the game.
Pellegrino will be without Matt Targett who has an ankle problem and Shane Long could also miss out due to a hip complaint, otherwise, the Argentine has a full squad to choose from. This will likely mean Southampton field a similar side to the team defeated at Stoke with Virgil van Dijk now back in contention, although Manolo Gabbiadini will replace Long up front as the main striker.
Rafa Benitez will definitely be without the services of Paul Dummett (hamstring) and Massadio Haidara (knee) with small doubts hanging over Christian Atsu who took a knock to the knee recently and has looked off the pace in the last couple of games which could prompt Benitez to rest his winger.
Key Battle: Mario Lemina vs Mikel Merino
In what promises to be an industrious and technical game, the centre of the pitch will be of vital importance to the end result. The team who can control this area, therefore, will be most likely to come away with three points. For the home side, Mario Lemina has been the one major positive to come from their season so far. Having quickly settled into his new surroundings, the ex-Juventus midfielder has a definite pedigree about his game and has already formed a promising partnership with midfield partner Oriol Romeu.
In the Newcastle ranks, Mikel Merino has also made an impression in his new team. The midfielder did not have many chances to shine during his time in Germany last season. However, a run of games for the Magpies has left little doubt of his abilities. In light of this, Newcastle were quick to trigger a clause in their new stars loan contract to sign him permanently earlier this week, something which should provide a further boost to the young player’s confidence as he looks to improve both himself and the new club he plays for.
The Importance of a Strong Spine
With only limited funds to build his squad, Rafa Benitez has prioritised the most important area of his team, the central positions. Although he was rumoured to be in the market for a new goalkeeper this summer, Rob Elliot has proved worthy of his place in the team while the two centre-backs ahead of him have both been excellent in every game so far. Captain Jamaal Lascelles and Ciaran Clark have formed a rock-solid partnership with the former not only leading by example but also recently committing himself to the club for another six years.
With Mikel Merino looking to be one of the summer’s bargain finds, Ayoze Pérez and Joselu may not be the creative and clinical forces their fans crave but they work tirelessly and unselfishly to help the team’s cause. In having this strong foundation to the team, Benitez has assembled a side that are hard to break down, a factor which will reap them plenty of points through the course of the season. With Southampton also built upon a similar structure, this weekend’s clash should prove a tactical battle first and foremost and an entertaining game second.
Staying Beyond January?
After making his way back into the starting lineup for the previous game against Stoke, Virgil van Dijk showed everyone watching exactly why the Saints decided to turn down a reported £60m bid for their club captain. It was his interaction with his teammates which proved most interesting, though, raising fresh questions about his long-term plans with the club.
Despite repeatedly citing his desire to leave the club including a further statement this month, everything appeared harmonious and normal both on and around the pitch. There will certainly be another feeding frenzy amongst the press for stories leading up to and throughout January. While the Saints hierarchy are adamant their captain will remain on the South Coast until the end of the season, a scheduled clash between Southampton and Liverpool at the beginning of February could make things very interesting indeed.
PREDICTION: Southampton 1 – 0 Newcastle United
Both teams will set up in a similar way with similar strengths and common weaknesses. Southampton, however, have the edge over Newcastle in terms of comparing individual players directly. The Magpies have been weakened over the last few years while Southampton have had the benefits which come with being an established Premiership side and a much stronger youth policy at the club. With both teams greatly in need of a striker who can carry the team forwards, this has no right to be a high-scoring game but Gabbiadini may just break his duck and give the home side a needed three points.
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