Written by Andy Wood
On Thursday, Southampton FC will start their Europa League campaign against Sparta Prague. Their achievements have been somewhat overlooked (understandably) in light of Leicester City’s phenomenal recent success, yet shouldn’t be understated. In 2007 they were close to going into administration and as recently as 2010 they were playing at League One level, yet they find themselves going into a campaign in the same group as Italian giants Inter Milan. It’s sure to be an interesting journey…
credit Ben Sutherland
Saints history in Europe
This season will be the 7th time in their history that Southampton have competed in the UEFA Cup/Europa League competition. Historically their outings in this competition has been short lived – last season they failed to qualify into the group stages. 4 out of their 5 other appearances – all before a group stage format was introduced – they have failed to get past the first round. This makes the 1981-82 campaign their most successful to date, when Stephen Morgan scored two goals in the first leg against Limerick to help them on the way to a 4-1 aggregate victory. Unfortunately they couldn’t progress past the Second round, losing 4-2 on aggregate to Sporting Lisbon. The fleeting history that they have might lower some expectations but bear in mind they’ve never had to negotiate a group stage format before. Southampton have shown over recent Premier League seasons that they can beat anyone on their day and work their way up a table – the acid test will be if they reach the knockout stages, and how they cope with that.
The biggest team in the group by some distance is Inter Milan. With 3 European Cups and 3 UEFA League trophies in their cabinet they have a major history of success in these competitions, although in recent years they’ve been a shadow of what they once were. They still have a squad brimming with quality, having taken in some impressive additions. Antonio Candreva, Joao Mario and Ivan Perisic are all quality signings and they’ve managed to retain hotshot striker Mauro Icardi, providing a very useful attacking threat. The smart money would see them winning the group, but at the same time they have struggled to make an impact in an Italian league that boasts few standout teams.
At the other end of the spectrum, it’s hard to see Israeli side Hapoel Beer Sheva pulling up any trees in the group. They lost out to Celtic in the Champions League play-offs, having to settle for a Europa League group stage place instead, and come into the competition out of easily the weakest league of any of the other three sides. That being said, it’s vital from Southampton’s point of view not to approach the fixtures against them with any sort of complacency – after all, they’ve earned their right to European football as much as any other team and will still possess the quality to hurt the Saints if any poor play occurs.
The opening match will be extremely important for Southampton on a couple of levels. Firstly, the general rule of group stages is that it is vital to build up momentum and to do this you need early wins. Secondly, I believe it will be between them and their opponents Sparta Prague for second place behind Inter in the long run. Sparta are a decent team, not a great one, but then again Southampton are not as strong as they’ve been in the last couple of years. An early defeat will see them needing to seriously catch up with the rest of the pack.
credit Ronnie Macdonald
How are Southampton looking?
So far they’ve been shaky. It’s hardly an embarrassment to lose away matches against Manchester United and Arsenal early on but home draws and drab displays against Watford and Sunderland have fans on edge already. A common problem at Southampton is instability of playing personnel and this summer has seen more key players moved on. Sadio Mane and Graziano Pelle have left a huge shortage of goals in the side, with Shane Long and Charlie Austin so far looking off the pace. Jay Rodriguez has had some moments though and new record signing Sofiane Boufal will be pushing for an introduction. Southampton will always be solid- marshalled superbly by Jose Fonte- and they have some useful technical players in midfield, especially with Steven Davis, Pierre Hojberg and Dusan Tadic, although the diamond shaped midfield utilised hasn’t got the best out of them. They’re also lucky to have a fantastic goalkeeper in Fraser Forster. The key will be whether they can find the firepower to pull them through this tournament.
I still think Southampton have enough quality to get past the group stages. The January transfer window precedes the knockout phase and that will be a crucial period- fail to strengthen and I just don’t see the team progressing past the first knockout round. I hope to be proved wrong however!
Part 2 will be an in-depth review of the match vs Sparta Prague. Enjoy!
Southampton fans, how confident are you going into the group stages? Let us know in the comments below!
featured image by Mike Beales