Manchester United return to Wembley with sights set on a first major trophy under José Mourinho, and a first League Cup victory since 2010. Now under the guise of the EFL Cup, the Reds have enjoyed a relatively straightforward run to the final, and face Claude Puel’s Southampton, who impressively dispatched Liverpool in the semi-final. Mourinho and his players will be made to fight for their first silverware of the season.
United’s EFL Cup run began back in September, as it came from behind to overcome League One Northampton Town to set up a meeting with rivals Manchester City. A 1-0 victory at Old Trafford was a rare highlight as the Reds endured a miserable October, and Juan Mata’s second half goal relieved some early pressure that was beginning to build on Mourinho as endured a rocky settling in period at the club.
West Ham United were ruthlessly swept aside in the quarter-final as the Reds began to gel under their new manager, embarking on a seventeen game unbeaten which only ended against Hull City last month. Fortunately, the defeat was academic as United progressed at the Tigers expense over a two-legged semi-final. Fans were denied the prospect of a first cup final against arch rivals Liverpool since 2001, but Southampton will provide more than adequate opposition as this transformed United side looks to start putting the misery of the past few years behind it.
Mourinho, by his own admission, relishes these occasions perhaps even more than his players. The Portuguese may feel he has a significant point to prove as many have been quick to question his place among the world’s managerial elite – following the disastrous end to his second spell at Chelsea. Granted, the EFL Cup is still a long way from the glamour of the Champions League, but Mourinho will want to show his critics that he still knows how to win trophies. This will be the manager’s fourth League Cup final appearance, and its an occasion on which he has never lost.
United itself has a more mixed relationship with League Cup finals, having won four and lost four of its previous eight appearances, although three of those victories have come since 2006. It will be United’s meeting with Southampton in a major final, stretching all the way back to the 1976 FA Cup final. Saints came out on top that day, an occasion which also happens to be the last time the club claimed a major trophy. Its fans will contend that they have been denied silverware for far too long.
There is much to admire about Southampton and their continued ability to remain competitive despite regular raids on their squad and coaching staff from clubs with a bigger budget. The appointment of Claude Puel was its fourth manager since returning to the Premier League in 2012, usually a sure sign of a club struggling to retain its top-flight status. Southampton, however, have bucked this trend and have served up some thoroughly entertaining football in the process.
Saints were tipped for relegation after firing promotion-winning boss Nigel Adkins to be replaced by the untested Mauricio Pochetinno, but the Argentine spurred the club on to another level, and even after his departure they have remained ever-present in the top half of the Premier League. Ronald Koeman secured qualification for the Europa League last year, and now Claude Puel hopes to take the club one step further by claiming a first major trophy for 41 years.
Puel has faced a dilemma at centre-back since losing the highly rated Virgil van Dijk to injury, and captain José Fonte to West Ham. Experienced campaigner Martin Caceres has been recruited to plug the gap, and could make his debut against United. Saints come into the final on the back of a 4-0 win against struggling Sunderland, and Puel may opt to stick with an altered 4-2-3-1 set up, a slight variation on the 4-3-3 his side have been employing for most of the season. Playmaker Soufiane Boufal is expected to return from an ankle injury, and Italian striker Marco Gabbiadini should continue up front in the absence of Charlie Austin.
The United support covered its eyes in horror as Henrikh Mkhitaryan limped off in Wednesday’s Europa League tie against Saint-Etienne, and it has been confirmed that the Armenian will miss today’s final. Mkhitaryan has been highly influential in recent weeks, beginning to look every inch the player who lit up the Bundesliga for Borussia Dortmund. United have ample back-up in attack, but Mkhitaryan offers something different to most other players in the country and could be sorely missed. The decision to risk him and so many other important players in an almost dead rubber against Saint-Etienne was a big gamble from Mourinho, and it has backfired on the United manager.
United: De Gea; Valencia, Bailly, Smalling, Blind; Carrick, Herrera, Pogba; Mata, Ibrahimovic, Martial.
Subs from: Romero, Darmian, Shaw, Fosu-Mensah, Young, Fellaini, Schweinsteiger, Lingard, Rooney, Rashford.
Southampton: Forster; Soares, Caceres, Yoshida, Bertrand; Romeu, Ward-Prowse; Tadic, Boufal, Redmond; Gabbiadini.
Subs from: Taylor, Gardos, Stephens, Clasie, Davis, Hojberg, McQueen, Long, Rodriguez, Sims, Hassen.
Michael Carrick was also substituted with a calf problem on Wednesday, but the veteran midfielder should be fit to start and could prompt Mourinho to revert to a three man midfield in Mkhitaryan’s absence. That particular setup served United well over the Christmas and New Year period, and Carrick possesses exactly the kind of nous that is vital on the big occasion.
United’s defence has picked itself in recent weeks, but the forward line continues to alter from week-to-week. Competition for cup final places has been red-hot as several players have been given the opportunity to make their mark ahead of the trip to Wembley. Zlatan Ibrahimovic is sure-fire starter, and Anthony Martial has begun to make the troublesome left-wing berth his own with a string of impressive displays. It is on the opposite flank, however, where Mourinho must make a decision. Juan Mata has occupied the role since United switched to a 4-2-3-1 formation, but Mkhitaryan’s absence creates a problem for the diminutive Spaniard. Mkhitaryan’s movement allowed him and Mata to dovetail effortlessly, but the Armenian’s injury means that United may not enjoy the same level of fluidity, and Mata has been known to struggle on the wing occasionally. The former Chelsea man, however, has done enough in recent weeks to merit a place in the side.
Marcus Rashford should be used as an impact sub, as if Mourinho’s plan A bears no fruit United will need a game-changer from the bench. Rashford’s pace and directness make him the ideal candidate for this role, as United’s options on the sidelines without him are somewhat limited. Ashley Young has impressed in recent weeks, but is not the type of player to significantly alter the direction of a match, while Wayne Rooney’s touted role as a game-changing option from the bench has never really materialised.
United head into today’s final as favourites, but face a Southampton side who have shown they have little issue with playing the underdog. Their handling of Liverpool over two semi-final legs should provide a stark warning to Mourinho and his players that they are up against a side who are happy to soak up pressure and punish teams on the break. United has improved markedly since a worrying run of form in the early Autumn, and Mourinho will be desperate to compound this resurgence with his first major silverware at Old Trafford. The manager has previously spoken of rediscovering the club’s winning mentality, and todays final is the ideal opportunity for he and his players to show that it has returned.
Andre Marriner (Referee)
Stuart Burt, Richard West (Assistants)
Kevin Friend (Fourth official)
United 2-1 Southampton