2018-19 EPL Match Day 22 — Leicester City (9-4-8) vs. Southampton (3-7-11)

For a man who has two of the biggest league victories of the season over Big Six sides, Leicester City manager Claude Puel appears to be treading on thin ice.

The embattled Foxes boss looks to keep the Midlands side atop the pack for seventh on Saturday when they host Puel’s former club Southampton at King Power Stadium.

POTENTIAL STARTING XIs

Leicester City (9-4-8) are currently “the best of the rest” in the Premier League on 31 points, seven behind resurgent Manchester United. Seventh place carries the potential of a Europa League qualifying berth based on Carabao Cup and FA Cup results, but supporters were hoping for a deep run in the FA Cup after a respectable quarterfinal exit on penalties in the Carabao Cup versus current holders Manchester City.

Those hopes, however, were dashed with a shocking 2-1 loss at League Two side Newport County on Sunday, a side 74 places below the Foxes in the English football pyramid. Marc Albrighton handled a cross on 85 minutes that allowed Newport’s Under-16 coach, Padraig Amond, to slot home the winning penalty.

“A lot of disappointment and frustration,” Puel told The Times after making seven changes to the first XI that powered a 1-0 win over Everton to ring in 2019. “But it’s a cup game and we didn’t find the solution to score more goals. We have had a good team with eight who had played winning the title with Leicester. I don’t want to look for excuses.”

Puel’s man management has left him open to criticism that has canceled out the goodwill that should have been fostered with wins over Manchester City and Chelsea on top of the way he kept the side together following the tragic death of owner Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha in October.

Puel and top striker Jamie Vardy – who did not even make the trip to Wales – have not seen eye to eye on multiple occasions this term, and leaving midfielder James Maddison on the bench until after intermission was another talking point in the Midlands.

“The good thing about football is that you get the chance to put it right as quickly as possible,” Albrighton told Leicester City’s official website. “We’ll aim to do that. We’re at home, so it makes it even better for us, we’ve got the crowd behind us and we’ll look to start well in the game and put last week to bed.

“We’ve had two close games against Southampton (this season). I know they’re probably a different task now with a new manager. They play differently and they seem to be playing with a lot more confidence.”

Southampton (3-7-11) are now three managers removed from Puel, who guided them to an eighth-place finish and a League Cup final in his lone season in charge in 2016-17. Mark Hughes was barely successful in keeping the Saints above the drop last term after replacing Mauricio Pellegrino, and now Ralph Hasenhuttl is trying to do the same after a miserable start this season led to Hughes’ sacking.

Southampton have improved since the German took over, but they did themselves no favours in the FA Cup on Saturday, having been held to a 2-2 draw at Derby County that will result in a third-round replay at St Mary’s. Nathan Redmond continued his purple patch of scoring with a brace on either side of halftime, but Tom Lawrence set up a goal and scored a second for Frank Lampard’s side in a three-minute span of the second half.

The match did allow Hasenhuttl a chance to observe more of Southampton’s younger players, with midfielder Callum Slattery making his senior team debut.

“I think he won a lot of balls from this position and also has the technique to look in front and give the last pass. I was happy with his performance and he showed he is always an alternative for me,” Hasenhuttl noted to the club’s official website about the 19-year-old.

Keeper Angus Gunn could be in line for a third consecutive start in all competitions after turning in a clean sheet in his first league start – a 0-0 draw versus Chelsea in which the 22-year-old made a pair of quality saves to deny Eden Hazard.

Up front, Hasenhuttl will be without top-choice striker Danny Ings through injury and Charlie Austin through suspension, with the forward being given a two-match ban by the FA for making an insulting gesture in Southampton’s 3-1 loss to Manchester City on Dec. 30. Midfielder Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg will serve the last of his three-match ban for a straight red card given late in that contest.

Austin will miss this match and the replay against Derby County next Wednesday. The absence of Ings and Austin puts more pressure on Redmond to continue producing. He has four goals and two assists in his last six matches across all competitions.

Leicester City ran out 2-1 winners in the reverse fixture at St Mary’s in August, with Harry Maguire’s strike in stoppage time cruelly denying 10-man Southampton a point. Demarai Gray and Ryan Bertrand traded goals four minutes apart early in the second half, and the Saints played a man down after 77 minutes after Hojbjerg received a second booking for diving.

The teams also played to a scoreless draw in the round of 16 in the Carabao Cup before Leicester advanced on penalties after an 85th-minute goal by Southampton’s Steven Davis was overturned by VAR for a handball on Redmond in the buildup.

The Foxes have not done the double over Southampton in the Premier League since 1999-2000.

PUNTERS’ NOTES

Per Bet365, Leicester City are 19/20 favourites to bounce back from their embarrassing FA Cup exit and claim all three points, while Southampton are 10/3 underdogs to claim a road win and heap further pressure on Puel. The odds of the sides splitting the points are 5/2.

Oddsmakers are predicting a low-scoring contest, with 8/11 odds offered for under the 2.5-goal threshold compared to 11/10 over it. It’s a toss-up as to whether both teams will score or a shutout will be recorded in either direction with 10/11 odds for both.

In a bit of a surprise, the Foxes striker leading the list for first goal-scorers is Kelechi Iheanacho at 15/4, nudging out Vardy (4/1). A trio of Leicester players — Maddison, Demarai Gray, and Shinjo Okazaki are all 13/2. Long was originally among that group, but with his suspension, the top Saints to make it 0-1 are Shane Long (9/1) and Redmond (10/1).

Iheanacho is a 6/5 pick to score during the course of the match, with Vardy in close pursuit at 13/10. The aforementioned Foxes threesome are each 11/5 picks to score a goal while Long is a 10/3 pick. Redmond and Stuart Armstrong both check in at 7/2.

PREDICTION

This space finds nothing wrong with the Leicester supporters being aggrieved about a potential FA Cup run scuppered with poor man management by Puel in terms of the in-match moves. It’s questionable to not bring Vardy, sure, but Puel has been consistent in that regards with the striker — even at considerable angst to gaffer, player and fan base.

A must-win sounds harsh, but a not-lose sounds more accurate. The good news is there appears to be such a margin of error regarding this chase for seventh with a rotating cast of characters among Leicester, Wolves, Everton, and West Ham United that one loss — even to a relegation-threatened side in Southampton — does not sound a death knell for those hopes. But a loss definitely adds to the irritability of those in the Midlands.

With Hasenhuttl not naming a starter between the sticks at his Friday news conference, the hedge is Gunn is going to be the one on the top of the team sheet when it is handed over. He looked calm and composed against Chelsea, and while it was smart to give him his Premier League debut at home, at some point, Gunn has to start on the road.

Why not here against an opponent playing in front of edgy home supporters? Why not now, because Southampton have played better as Hasenhuttl has blooded the kiddie corps. The Saints’ lack of offence up front and from anyone other than Redmond will probably be their undoing in this match, and not having Maya Yoshida (Asian Cup) in the back is going to be a problem against the irrepressible and tireless Vardy.

This is a game where his graft plus Maddison’s creativity separate the sides, who have already played two very close matches this season.

PREDICTED FINAL SCORE: Leicester City 1, Southampton 0.

OTHER EPL MATCH DAY 22 PREVIEWS

West Ham United (8-4-9) vs. Arsenal (12-5-4)
Brighton and Hove Albion (7-5-9) vs. Liverpool (17-3-1)
Chelsea (13-5-3) vs. Newcastle United (4-6-11)
Tottenham Hotspur (16-0-5) vs. Manchester United (11-5-5)

2018-19 EPL Match Day 14 Preview — Southampton (1-5-7) vs. Manchester United (6-3-4)

Jose Mourinho has never been one who worries about style points, but at the same time, Mark Hughes could find himself out of a job come Monday if he fails to get Southampton three points from Saturday’s match versus Manchester United at St. Mary’s.

POTENTIAL STARTING XIs

Mourinho stole the limelight for his water-bottle tossing antics following Marouane Fellaini’s stoppage-time goal that secured a spot for United (6-3-4) in the knockout round of the Champions League with a match to spare, but Hughes enters this match hanging onto his position by the barest of threads.

Southampton (1-5-7) are at the top of the drop on eight points, ahead of both Cardiff City and Fulham on goal difference, and winless in their last 11 across all competitions (0-6-5). Saints supporters were expecting something better when Hughes was tasked with rescuing the club from the drop last term.

He nearly performed an ignominious double of getting two teams relegated as he was sacked from Stoke City prior to his arrival at St Mary’s, where he took eight points from the final five matches to get them three points clear in 17th.

That poor form has carried over to this term, which makes the three-year contract he signed before the season all the more of an albatross. Southampton have gone 3-7-12 in 22 league matches under Hughes’ watch, and the gaffer has claimed just 31 points from his last 39 Premier League contests.

The Times has reported former QPR and Leicester City manager Paul Sousa could be a candidate to replace Hughes. But the current boss, who is a staggering 1-to-8 favourite among oddsmakers as the next manager to get sacked, struck a combative tone in Thursday’s news conference.

“It’s water off a duck’s back. In this day and age there are media outlets that find it’s in their interests to try to set the agenda,” said Hughes, who could be the first manager in Premier League history to be sacked by two different clubs in the same calendar year. “I’m not the only manager of a club down the bottom, maybe underachieving at the moment, but I seem to be the only one getting the brunt of the speculation.

“The reality is if people surmise a manager is under pressure almost every sports agent in the country will put forward clients and try to get in contact with the powers that be, saying ‘This is the right guy if you are thinking of making a change.'”

The irony of Hughes losing his cool in their 1-1 draw versus Watford, in which Southampton had a goal incorrectly chalked off for offsides on a call VAR would have easily overturned had it been in use, made a tight circle Tuesday in their scoreless Carabao Cup tie versus Leicester City.

Steven Davis had a goal disallowed after VAR ruled Nathan Redmond committed a handball in the build-up, and Southampton’s luck went from bad to worse just before the spot kicks when Leicester keeper Danny Ward nudged Manolo Gabbiadini’s free kick onto the woodwork. Gabbiadini’s miserable day concluded and Southampton’s stay in the Carabao Cup ended when Ward saved his attempt from the spot in the sixth round of penalty kicks.

Hughes made five changes to the starting XI that suffered a 3-2 loss at Fulham last weekend that added to the inquest about his future. The manager is hoping top goal-scorer Danny Ings will be available for this match.

Ings, who has four of Southampton’s 10 league goals, was forced off in the first half of the draw against Watford and missed the last two contests.

As Hughes twists in the wind, Mourinho defiantly spits into it. Manchester United’s rollercoaster season continued Tuesday at Old Trafford in a turgid match versus Swiss side Young Boys, with Fellaini – the throwback player Mourinho has protected like a son from the critics – controlling a cross from Romelu Lukaku at the top of the box and scoring in the 91st minute for a last-gasp 1-0 victory.

Mourinho, who had cut a frustrated figure in the coach’s box much of the match, had a celebration that was as much catharsis as happiness, swinging a crate of water bottles and slamming it onto the ground. And ever ready to remind reporters of his track record of success, Mourinho was quick to point out he retained his 100 percent mark of advancing to the final 16 of the Champions League.

“For some of my lovers I just want to say for the ones that like stats: 14 seasons in the Champions League, 14 times qualified through the group phase,” Mourinho crowed. “Never one of my teams stay behind in the group phase. The season I didn’t play Champions League, I won the Europa League.”

Yet the track record also hides lineup decisions that continue to confound as United enter this match in seventh place and seven points adrift of fourth. Lukaku and Paul Pogba both started the match on the bench, with Fellaini and Fred the preferred choices to flank Nemanja Matic. Alexis Sanchez did not make the 18-man squad as rumours of an irreparable rift between the Chile international and Mourinho persist.

And all of those decisions would have been ripe for second-guessing had keeper David De Gea not made one of the top saves of his career for either club or country in the 70th minute, diving to his right to claw out a shot by Ulisses Garcia that took two deflections and seemed destined to bounce inside the left post.

“From my position I think David’s save looks a phenomenal save,” said Mourinho two days before the team exercised an option to keep De Gea between the sticks through next season. “A save that only the best goalkeeper in the world does and gives his team the possibility to win the match. He’s a world-class player. He’s the best goalkeeper in the world and we need the best goalkeeper in the world and you need also some other players who are the best in the world. In this case, we have the best goalkeeper in the world and I know that he wants to stay.”

The win also served notice Mourinho prefers Phil Jones to partner in central defence with Chris Smalling over Eric Bailly while Victor Lindelof is sidelined. The Sweden international is not expected to be back until at least Boxing Day with a hamstring injury.

United are unbeaten in their last five (3-2-0) against Southampton in all competitions and carry a 363-minute shutout streak in league play since Charlie Austin scored an 87th-minute winner for the Saints in a 1-0 victory at Old Trafford on Jan. 23, 2016. The Red Devils won 1-0 in last season’s corresponding fixture on Lukaku’s first-half goal.

Manchester United are 28-6-7 versus Southampton in the Premier League era and are unbeaten in nine (7-2-0) in all competitions at St Mary’s since a 1-0 defeat in 2003.

PUNTERS’ NOTES

Per Bet365, United are 10/11 favourites to claim all three points and perhaps begin a climb up the table. There are 13/5 odds on the sides splitting the points, which still may not be enough to save Hughes, and Southampton have 7/2 odds on pulling off a win that could prevent a stay of execution for the gaffer.

Oddsmakers are unsure which way this match will trend offensively as both over and under 2.5 goals have 10/11 odds. They seem to be leaning toward there being goals, though, as there are 3/4 odds on both teams scoring compared to even money for a clean sheet by one or both sides.

Despite a goal-scoring drought that has now spanned United’s last 14 matches, oddsmakers are offering Lukaku as the top option to open the scoring at 9/2 odds. The Belgium international is followed by a trio of teammates as Sanchez, Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford are all 6/1 picks. A well-rested Austin and Michael Obafemi are joint 7/1 as Southampton’s top picks along with Pogba.

Lukaku and his teammates also lead the toteboard for scoring over the course of 90 minutes, with the centre forward at 11/8 and his teammates at 15/8. Austin, Obafemi and Pogba have 9/4 odds to put one in the back of the net, while snake-bit Gabbiadini has 13/5 odds to score a goal.

PREDICTION

It was borderline comical to hear Hughes be so defiant during his press conference Thursday, especially considering he could not confirm he had the backing of the club’s board. Southampton have been an abject side for most of this term save Ings, and while Austin was properly incensed when the disallowed goal cost the Saints two points, there has been far too little of that fire throughout the side.

Speaking of Ings, the belief is he will be on the bench for this match, hence the belief Southampton will open in a 4-2-3-1. If Hughes does put the Liverpool loanee in his first XI, the Saints would probably open in a 4-4-2.

Yet all of those lineup choices and formations could be rendered moot if United play the match they are capable of playing. While problems still persist at Old Trafford — through Mourinho’s creation and otherwise — there was probably a huge weight lifted off the players collectively by qualifying for the Champions League knockout round with a match to spare.

That break will loom large heading into the holiday fixture list, especially since Mourinho is already down one centre back physically (Lindelof) and apparently a second in trust (Bailly). Then there is the issue of Sanchez, who is probably livid he didn’t make the mid-week 18 and will probably be a fringe player in this contest and get a half-hour at most off the bench.

What United need is a United-type goal, one that answers the cries of “Attack, attack, attack” that will come from the road supporters. The empty seats at Old Trafford versus Young Boys was something Ed Woodward and the board likely took notice, and after a scruffy finish by the publicly underappreciated Fellaini, this team needs a jolt.

Unfortunately for Hughes, that jolt will likely lead to the pink slip that will not be a shock for anyone involved.

PREDICTED FINAL SCORE: Southampton 0, Manchester United 2.

OTHER EPL MATCH DAY 14 PREVIEWS:

Manchester City (11-2-0) vs. Bournemouth (6-2-5)
Chelsea (8-4-1) vs. Fulham (2-2-9)
Arsenal (7-3-2) vs. Tottenham Hotspur (10-0-3)
Liverpool (10-3-0) vs. Everton (6-4-3)

2018-19 EPL Match Day 13 Preview — Fulham (1-2-9) vs. Southampton (1-5-6)

The Tinkerman has much, much work to do.

After engineering the most unlikely story of the Premier League era with his title at Leicester City, Claudio Ranieri faces perhaps a more challenging task in keeping Fulham in the top flight starting with Saturday’s six-point belter with Southampton at Craven Cottage.

POTENTIAL STARTING XIs

Ranieri is known the world over for his stunning Premier League title less than three years ago as his Midlands club built on counterattacking, a steel spine, and the 1-2 punch of Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez overcame 5,000-to-1 odds to end the hegemony of the “Big Six” that dated to the days of Blackburn Rovers’ title in 1995.

Ranieri, though, failed to see his title defence through the following season, getting sacked as the Foxes struggled under the weight of the lofty expectations. The Italian, though, has been lured back to the Premier League by way of owner Shahid Khan, who sacked Slavisa Jokanovic after Fulham (1-2-9) limped into the international break last in the table with five points and a crushing minus-20 goal difference.

Ranieri, who is now with his third Premier League team after being the Chelsea manager when Roman Abramovich first bought the club back in 2003, completed one other successful rescue mission in 2007 with Serie A side Parma in Italy.

“When I arrived in Parma at the end of the February it was the same. All my friends said, ‘you are mad to go there, it’s not possible to save this team,'” Ranieri said at his introductory press conference last Saturday. “And I saved the team. At Cagliari, we went 1/8Serie 3/8 C, B, A. I love this kind of battle.”

The battle to save the Cottagers starts at the back, where they have shipped a league-worst 31 goals – the most of any side in Europe’s top five leagues. Their goal difference after 12 games is the third-worst in Premier League history, as is their five points. Fulham’s lone clean sheet in any competition this term was a 2-0 victory over League Two side Exeter City in their first Carabao Cup match, and they have yielded two or more goals in 10 of their 12 league contests.

“The objective at Fulham should never be to merely survive in the Premier League,” Ranieri said. “We must at all times be a difficult opponent and should expect to succeed. This Fulham squad has exceptional talent that is contrary to its position in the table. I know this team is very capable of better performances.”

How he gets those better performances will be the mystery. Ranieri does have a precocious talent in winger Ryan Sessegnon, whose confidence has taken a battering this season as the teenager has just one goal and one assist. He also has a reliable target forward in Aleksander Mitrovic and winger Andre Schurrle, who have combined for nine of Fulham’s 11 goals.

The Cottagers, though, have gone 326 minutes in league play without a goal and 416 in all competitions since Sessegnon’s marker against Cardiff City on Oct. 20. Fulham have lost six on the spin in league play and seven straight in all competitions.

Had Southampton (1-5-6) been less patient with Mark Hughes, it would not be totally implausible that Ranieri would have wound up in the opponents’ coaching box for this match. Hughes has been under fire most of this term as the Saints are above the drop only on goal difference over Cardiff City, yet they are only one point behind 14th-place Newcastle United.

Hughes and his side have been stewing throughout the international break, properly aggrieved at being denied a victory over Watford on an incorrect offsides call on Maya Yoshida in the 66th minute that negated Charlie Austin’s goal and would have given Southampton a 2-0 lead. Given the lifeline, the Hornets took full advantage with an equaliser eight minutes from time that left both goal-scorer and gaffer incandescent with rage post-match.

“We score a perfectly good goal, make it 2-0, game’s done and dusted. The officials cost us two points today,” Austin said immediately after the final whistle. “It’s a joke. We go on about VAR (video assistant referee) this, VAR that – help the officials out, clearly they need help.”

Hughes lamented the goal but also took the league to task for their choice of Simon Hooper – in charge of just his fourth Premier League match – as referee, saying, “Apparently, he (Hooper) thought Maya Yoshida had headed the ball in from an offside position, which is obviously ridiculous. If he thought that he shouldn’t have been there. He was an inexperienced referee . . . not up to the standard required. I hear they’ve admitted they got it wrong, but that’s no consolation to us.”

While it does them no favours now, the end result of the blown call is the Premier League have moved up their timetable to introduce VAR for next season.

Manolo Gabbiadini’s goal in the 20th minute ended a 615-minute drought without a goal in the run of play for Southampton dating back to Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg’s goal in a 2-2 draw with Brighton and Hove Albion on Sept. 17. The Saints’ two goals in league play during that stretch came courtesy of Danny Ings from the spot.

Hughes will be forced into one change to his starting XI for this match as talisman and left back Ryan Bertrand will sit out after picking up his fifth yellow card in the draw versus Watford. Matt Targett is the expected replacement there, while midfielder Mario Lemina picked up a knock on international duty with Gabon and is questionable.

Southampton ended Fulham’s FA Cup run last season with a 1-0 victory at Craven Cottage in the third round on a goal by James Ward-Prowse just before the half-hour. The Saints have won three on the bounce over Fulham and are unbeaten in the last six (3-3-0) overall. Southampton did the double over the Cottagers the last time both teams were in the top flight in 2013-14.

PUNTERS’ NOTES

Per Ladbrokes, Fulham are slight favourites to make Ranieri a winner in his Cottagers debut at 31/20, with Southampton getting 17/10 odds to put some separation between themselves and the drop with a needed three points. A split of the points is the longshot among the options with 23/10 odds.

Though both teams have struggled to score of late, there are still 7/10 odds on both teams to find the back of the net in this contest. Accordingly, a Cottagers draw with more than 2.5 goals has 3/1 odds, with a 0-0 or 1-1 draw the second-most likely outcome according to oddsmakers at 13/4. A Saints victory over 2.5 goals is right behind that at 10/3, while a Fulham win by a 1-0 or 2-0 count has 19/4 odds. A reverse scoreline of the previous listing offers 5/1 odds for Southampton supporters, and a 2-2 draw or higher has 10/1 odds.

Mitrovic leads the line for the first goal-scoring choices at 9/2, followed by his teammate Schurrle and Southampton striker Ings at 5/1. Ings’ strike partner Austin has 11/2 odds, while Fulham’s Aboubakar Kamara and Southampton’s Gabbiadini are both 13/2 options.

The Serbian international is also the top choice to find a goal over 90 minutes at 8/5 odds, with Schurrle and Ings again joint-second at 7/4. Austin lurks just off the pair at 19/10, and Gabbiadini is at 11/5 — just ahead of Kamara at 23/10.

PREDICTION

Usually, the Vatican requires proof of two miracles before canonization can take place. If Ranieri is able to rescue Fulham from their plight and keep them in the top flight for next season, then at the very least he should be referred to as “St. Claudio” for the rest of his football coaching days.

Make no mistake, this is a desperate situation for the Cottagers, who to Jokanovic’s credit, went down swinging on their identity to the very end until it became untenable. One can argue Fulham were hard done at Anfield as Mitrovic’s goal was disallowed by being offsides by a sliver before Alisson’s restart caught everyone off guard, but it still would have been a matter of “when” Liverpool score as opposed to “if” Liverpool score.

It is going to take Ranieri at least three matches to figure out what he has in terms of defence and midfielders. The attacking flanks are actually fairly well off with Sessegnon and Schurrle, and Mitrovic is a load up front. Comparisons to Leicester, however, cannot apply to Fulham since Ranieri does not have a keeper anywhere close to the quality of Kasper Schmeichel, and there are no twin towers in central defence similar to Wes Morgan and Robert Huth in the Midlands.

On the other side are Southampton, still far from safe both in terms of the table and Hughes’ job security. Whether the officiating debacle that led to their draw last match turns into a stay of execution is uncertain, the truth is the Saints are severely struggling offensively beyond Ings — himself on a dry run save his conversions from the spot. Southampton’s defence have been serviceable when not playing the “Big Six,” and that needs to continue to avoid the drop.

Still, it is hard to make any other conclusion other than Hughes could be gone by the turn of the calendar year if they do not make a move up the table.

Adrenaline from the coaching change may be enough to see Fulham scrape out a point, but how they defend — or do not defend — will be the talking point coming out of this contest.

PREDICTED FINAL SCORE: Fulham 1, Southampton 1.

OTHER MATCH DAY 13 PREVIEWS:

West Ham United (3-3-6) vs. Manchester City (10-2-0)
Tottenham Hotspur (9-0-3) vs. Chelsea (8-4-0)
Bournemouth (6-2-4) vs. Arsenal (7-3-2)
Watford (6-2-4) vs. Liverpool (9-3-0)

2018-19 EPL Match Day 10 Preview — Southampton (1-3-5) vs. Newcastle United (0-2-7)

With one victory and 12 goals in 18 league matches between them, things are indeed bleak both on Tyneside and the South Coast for Newcastle United and Southampton, respectively.

It may be too early to call Saturday’s matchup at St Mary’s a six-point relegation belter, but it’s clear both sides are in desperate need of something to jump start their flagging campaigns.

POTENTIAL STARTING XIs

History continues to mount against Rafa Benitez and Newcastle (0-2-7), who are one of two Premier League sides without a win and off to their worst top-flight start in 120 years. The Magpies became just the fourth such team to lose their first five home games in a season following their 1-0 defeat to Brighton and Hove Albion last weekend.

The other three – Manchester United (1930-31), Portsmouth (2009-10) and Bolton Wanderers (2011-12) were all relegated.

Benitez’s frustration of not receiving help from Newcastle club owner Mike Ashley in the form of spending in multiple transfer windows gave way to outright despondency over his team’s plight after the most recent loss in which the Spaniard told The Times he hopes “to find three teams worse than us” when it comes to the upcoming relegation scrap.

Ashley was again present at the match, the fourth straight one he has attended, but the atmosphere continues to grow more toxic around St James’ Park as the supporters continue their call for him to sell the team. There was a banner with the word “contempt” written across a picture of Ashley’s laughing face outside the stadium grounds as the club – still without a trophy since 1955 – faces a potential third relegation to the Championship in Ashley’s 12 years of ownership.

Benitez, though, has not lost to the team, and still has support of the most important player of the club – talisman and centre back Jamaal Lascelles.

“I don’t think anyone in the stadium can question the manager about anything,” Lascelles stated. “Whether it’s to do with substitutions, tactics or whatever – they can’t question the manager, because he knows football better than anyone in this whole stadium.

“People might say he should have brought this or that player on, but he’s done it at the top level and won trophies, so he knows. He wants us to play a certain way and if we can’t do that as players, it’s down to us. The gaffer can only deal with what he’s got. As players we’ve got to take responsibility ourselves. We have to get together and talk about it.”

But talking about the lack of goals is not going to make them suddenly appear. Newcastle’s six goals are third-fewest in the top flight, ahead of only Crystal Palace (5) and Huddersfield Town (4), and the squandering of the two goals scored in their devastating loss at Manchester United before the international break only adds to the urgency.

Striker Salomon Rondon returned to training this week after being sidelined the last three matches with a thigh injury, but it is clear Benitez lacks quality options to lead the line as the Venezuela international, Joselu and Yoshinori Muto have combined for four of their seven goals in all competitions.

Southampton (1-3-5) are enduring a similar stretch of futility – Mark Hughes’ side are winless in their last six matches (0-3-3) in all competitions. Their scoring drought in league play reached 385 minutes after a 0-0 draw at Bournemouth last weekend in a South Coast derby, but Hughes was pleased with his team’s attacking intent as they nearly stole three points late.

“We’re not pleased with the one point, because I think we deserved more than that,” Hughes told Southampton’s official website. “I thought in terms of clear cut chances on the day, ours were obviously more clear cut and we had more potential to convert, but in the end it’s a good performance.”

Like Newcastle, the Saints have had issues at home. Southampton have three goals and two points from their four home matches, and with Hughes claiming just 14 points from his 17 matches in charge after taking over to help escape the drop last season, it is clear that there will be another such battle on his hands this term.

“Don’t underestimate the ability of Newcastle because they’re a good side, they’ve got good talent, good pace in the wide area and up to as well,” Hughes warned at his Thursday news conference to The Chronicle Live.

“We’ve got to be ready for a real tough test against Newcastle. I feel we’re ready and we’re confident in what we’re going to do – but it’s important nobody underestimate the threat Newcastle bring.”

Striker Charlie Austin appears to have done enough to retain his starting spot alongside Danny Ings, who is Southampton’s top scorer with three goals in league play and four overall. Hughes is sweating over the fitness of midfielder Mario Lemina, who was forced off against the Cherries due to a knee injury. The other concern for Lemina is he is carrying four yellow cards – the next one will result in an automatic one-match ban.

The Magpies took four points from the two meetings last year, winning 3-0 at home and settling for a 2-2 draw at St Mary’s as Manolo Gabbiadini completed his brace with a penalty on 75 minutes. Newcastle’s lone victory at Southampton in 17 Premier League matches (1-4-12) was a 2-1 triumph in 2004.

PUNTER’S NOTES

Per Ladbrokes, Southampton are solid favourites to end their winless ways and extend Newcastle’s, checking in with 21/20 odds to claim all three points. The odds of a draw are  21/10, better than the offering of the Magpies to break their duck at 14/5.

A Saints victory with less than 2.5 goals is the top option for outcomes at 14/5, narrowly edging out one with more than 2.5 goals (29/10). A 0-0 or 1-1 draw has 13/5 odds of occurring, while Newcastle victories offer nice returns for those who fancy an upset — a win with less than 2.5 goals has 11/2 odds, and one of over 2.5 goals has 13/2.

Oddsmakers are also fairly confident Southampton are going to score first is if there is a goal as all four Saints strikers are listed ahead of the no goal-scoring option. Ings unsurprisingly leads the line at 9/2, edging out Austin at 5/1. Gabbiadini and Shane Long lurk behind the pair, both at 11/2, while Newcastle’s trio of forwards — Joselu, Rondon and Muto — all have 15/2 odds to give the Magpies a surprise 0-1 scoreline.

At 7/4, Ings again edges Austin (4/1) as the top option, this time in the any-time goal-scorers, and Gabbiadini and Long are again paired together at 11/5. Joselu and Rondon are also a tandem for Newcastle at 14/5 odds, edging out Muto (3/1)

PREDICTION

If a tree falls at St Mary’s and doesn’t make a sound, did it actually score a goal?

This will be a curious encounter, not for the aesthetics by any stretch of the imagination, but whether either Hughes or Benitez — or both of them — decide to actually play enterprising football and go for three points to try and kick on to this season.

Benitez’s comments after the loss to Brighton are particularly worrisome because for the first time, it showed the grind of trying to scratch out a result every week is taking a toll on him. The fans love him, his players love him, but he’s not going to care nor feel the love until the Magpies are in the win column. Until either one of the aforementioned strikers or one of his attacking midfielders in Kenedy, Ayoze Perez or Matt Ritchie find the back of the net, Newcastle will continue to take on the characteristics of a self-loathing club that cannot get of their own way, and the supporters are going to melt down right with them.

Then there are Southampton, whom this space remains convinced made the wrong decision in retaining Hughes. As The National pointed out, Hughes rate of points per match is now worse than predecessor Mauricio Pellegrino’s, and “Sparky” has done little to instill confidence that rate is going to have a significant uptick in the short or medium-term future because Saints have only played Liverpool and Chelsea among the big six.

And those defeats were 3-0 setbacks that could have had a much worse scoreline, Liverpool barely needed to get out of second gear in their match, and Chelsea were two to the good before the hour. While Newcastle failed to get a point in the five matches they have played against those perennials, they at least doggedly made the opposition work to claim their three points.

Southampton have ebbed and flowed in quality during this winless streak without showing much overall. Yes, the Saints did play better against Bournemouth, but they set the bar so low in the loss to Chelsea before the break, almost anything would have looked better.

This is a match that could turn on creativity, which means it would be an ideal time for Newcastle midfielder Jonjo Shelvey to find the killer pass forward that potentially separates these teams. But the Magpies are so deep in the muck right now, one fears even converting a penalty would be only a 50-50 proposition as opposed to the usual 80-20 minimum chance of success.

PREDICTED FINAL SCORE: Southampton 0, Newcastle United 0.

OTHER MATCH DAY 10 PREVIEWS:

Brighton and Hove Albion (3-2-4) vs. Wolverhampton (4-3-2)
Burnley (2-2-5) vs. Chelsea (6-3-0)
Manchester United (4-2-3) vs. Everton (4-3-2)
Tottenham Hotspur (7-0-2) vs. Manchester City (7-2-0)

2018-19 EPL Match Day 2 Preview — Everton (0-1-0) vs. Southampton (0-1-0)

Reunited and it felt so good.

After marking his Everton debut in grand style, Richarlison and the Toffees open their Goodison Park slate Saturday versus Southampton looking to maintain their offensive flow.

POTENTIAL STARTING XIs

A record £50 million signing from Watford, Richarlison is together again with Marco Silva, who brought the Brasil international to Vicarage Road from Fluminense prior to his sacking.

While the process to reunite the pair at Goodison Park was equal parts protracted and messy — it surprised no one Wednesday when Everton football director Marcel Brands admitted to The Times the animosity between the clubs drove the asking price for Richarlison above market value — it was clear for one match at least the 21-year-old was every bit worth the extra quid.

Playing the left wing, Richarlison scored goals on either side of halftime, twice giving Everton the lead before the 10-man Merseysiders were pegged back in a 2-2 draw at promoted Wolverhampton.

The two goals displayed the different natures of Richarlison’s goal-scoring nous, bundling his first inside the six-yard box as a free kick fell to him in the 17th minute and picking the far corner to beat Rui Patricio inside the right post from 12 yards after being sent through by Cenk Tosun in the 67th.

“We are talking about a player who is 21,” Silva told The Telegraph about Richarlison, who failed to score in his final 26 league matches with Watford. “We have to be calm with him. He has the talent, he has everything there, but you have to protect him, support him.”

Calm is not a word that could be associated with centre back Phil Jagielka, who will serve the first of his three-match ban for a direct red card following his studs-up challenge on Diogo Jota in the 41st minute after losing possession on the slick pitch. Everton did not appeal the suspension, which rules Jagielka out for the next two league matches and their second-round Carabao Cup contest.

After using Jagielka and Michael Keane as his first central defence pairing, Silva could turn to a new duo. New signing Yerry Mina was ruled out of this contest as he continues to work to match fitness. The ex-Barcelona man and £28.5 million signed after a standout effort for Colombia at the World Cup in which he scored three goals in helping Los Cafeteros reach the round of 16.

Kurt Zouma, on loan from Chelsea, started 32 matches for relegated Stoke City last term as he fell out of the rotation at Stamford Bridge following a torn ACL suffered in the 2015-16 season. Mason Holgate, who played the final 49 minutes after Jagielka’s expulsion as a tactical sub replacing Gylfi Sigurdsson, is also in the running for a spot.

Southampton (0-1-0) did not look much better than the side that narrowly escaped the drop last term as they played Burnley to a scoreless draw at home last Saturday. Despite attempting 18 shots, the Saints put only three on target and failed to get going offensively until the introduction of Danny Ings and Mohamed Elyounoussi just before the hour mark.

“We needed to gain control of the game so we changed the personnel and the shape as well which helped us,” Southampton boss Mark Hughes told the club’s official website. “We were able to get up the pitch. We created a number of chances and on another day I think we did enough to win the game.”

Elyounoussi, though, is not expected to be available after suffering a hamstring injury in the draw. Hughes did say Stuart Amstrong should be recovered from a knock and available for selection.

Ings, on loan from Liverpool as a rare player move to St Mary’s between the teams in recent years, is trying to adjust to playing underneath as opposed to a traditional striker.

“At the moment, I’m getting used to the way the team play – I wanted to come on and get a feel for the football they play,” said Ings, who took three shots and has just four goals since bagging 11 for Burnley in 2014-15. “There were a lot of spaces coming deep, so I drifted into those pockets, got on the ball and tried to play people in.

“I want to show people it’s not all about running in behind for me – I can come short and play too.”

Hughes could restore left back Maya Yoshida to his starting XI after holding out the Japan international, who helped Samurai Blue reach the knockout round of the World Cup this summer. Yoshida would likely replace Wesley Hoedt in Southampton’s three-man back line.

The Saints took four points from last season’s meetings, routing a disheveled Everton squad led by caretaker manager David Unsworth 4-1 last November. The Toffees rescued a point against the 10-man Saints in a 1-1 draw at Goodison Park on Tom Davies’ goal in the 96th minute.

Southampton have taken points in two of their last three trips to the blue part of Merseyside but are winless in 13 there (0-4-9). Their lone win in 19 Premier League matches (1-5-13) at Goodison Park was a 2-0 victory in 1997.

PUNTERS’ NOTES

Per Ladbrokes, Everton are strong favourites at 20/23 odds, while Southampton check in at 10/3. Those who believe the points will be shared can get a return on 23/10 odds. The two most likely scorelines listed are 1-0 Everton and a 1-1 draw, which both return 11/2 odds.

Despite his brace at Molineux, Richarlison is ninth on the list for any-time goal-scorers at 13/5 odds and sixth among Everton players. Tosun leads the line at 5/4, followed by Oumar Niasse (8/5) and Saints forward Charlie Austin (7/4). For opening goal-scorers, Tosun again is the favourite at 16/5 odds, with Niasse 4/1 and Austin 9/2. Richarlison is again down the pecking order at 7/1.

Beyond Austin for Southampton, Gabbiadini is a 5/2 any-time goal-scorer and 13/2 to make it 1-0. Ings is an 11/4 any-time scorer and 15/2 to stake the visitors to a 1-0 lead.

In terms of personal preferences, I like the match result of Everton and under 2.5 goals returning 14/5 odds.

PREDICTION

Jagielka’s absence could be an addition by subtraction as it forces Silva to test his depth at centre back. Zouma appears to be the most likely replacement for this match at least since Mina is in his first week of practices with the Toffees, and it’s also possible Silva takes the path of least resistance and keeps Keane as opposed to trotting out a new duo in front of Jordan Pickford.

Offensively, there is little to worry about for Everton except where Barcelona loanee Andre Gomes can be deployed after his late arrival before the transfer deadline, though that headache has been put off for another week since the Portugal international will be held out. Silva could not make aggressive changes down a man against Wolverhampton as Sandro Ramirez and Dominic Calvert-Lewin sat unused.

Southampton left much to be desired offensively versus Burnley, and the Saints likely will have less possession in this match given Everton’s talent on the ball. Without Elyounoussi, the task becomes that much harder to maneuver through the midfield, and getting service to Charlie Austin will be vital to at least challenge whoever is in Everton’s central defence.

Still, Everton look to have too much class for Southampton and should open their home schedule with three points in convincing fashion.

Prediction: Everton 2, Southampton 0

(Writer’s Note: This preview can be seen in a text-only format at the STATS Hosted Solutions site. I am making edits in the interim, adding projected starting lineups, odds-related picks and a final score prediction in this blog.)

Other Match Day 2 previews:

Chelsea vs. Arsenal
West Ham United vs. Bournemouth
Cardiff City vs. Newcastle United

2018-19 EPL Team-by-Team Previews: Southampton (July 21)

(Writer’s Note: This is the fourth of what will hopefully be 20 team previews in 20 days. Or at the very least, all 20 teams prior to the 2018-19 Premier League’s season-opener between Manchester United and Leicester City on Aug. 10. Links to previous teams can be found at the bottom of the page)

SOUTHAMPTON SAINTS

Manager: Mark Hughes (Hire Date: March 14, 2018)
Tenure Length: 16th/20 in Premier League and 63rd/92 in Top 4 leagues of English football
2017-18 Record: 7-15-16, 36 points, 17th in Premier League
2017-18 Goals scored: 37
2017-18 Goal Difference: minus-19
Number of Current Consecutive Seasons in Premier League: 7 (includes 2018-19)
Last Promotion: 2012
Last Relegation: 
2009 (Championship to League One)
2017-18 Carabao Cup: Second-round loss (Wolverhampton)
2017-18 FA Cup: Semifinal loss (Chelsea)

2017/18 REVIEW

After four consecutive top-eight finishes, it all came undone for Southampton as it narrowly avoided being relegated to the Championship. The Saints started well enough with five points from their first three matches, but they failed to win back-to-back league matches all season while lacking chemistry under Mauricio Pellegrino.

The high point of the season may have been their 4-1 rout of an Everton squad in the throes of a coaching change in late November. It also marked the last time Southampton was in the top half of the table. Pellegrino’s team then went winless in 12 matches (0-7-5) before beating West Bromwich Albion 3-2 in February, but that was just another blip as the Saints endured an eight-match winless drought (0-3-5) during which Pellegrino was sacked March 12.

Hughes was hired two days later and Southampton looked no better in his first three matches in charge with losses to West Ham United, Arsenal and Chelsea as Southampton was now at the top of the drop with five matches remaining. The Saints, though, regained their defensive bearings and conceded just twice while taking eight points from their next four matches — highlighted by a six-point belter in a 1-0 victory at Swansea City on Manolo Gabbiadini’s goal in the 72nd minute in the penultimate contest that all but mathematically secured survival.

Despite a season-ending 1-0 loss to champion Manchester City, Southampton finished the season three points clear of the drop on 36 and finished 17th.

Charlie Austin led the Saints in scoring in league play with seven goals despite appearing in just 24 matches. He and Dusan Tadic shared the overall team lead with seven goals as Southampton potted just 43 in 44 matches, and Gabbiadini was the only other player with at least five.

Between the sticks, Alex McCarthy took the No. 1 spot from Fraser Forster after Boxing Day, but neither were overly impressive. They had 11 clean sheets between them and stopped 66.1 percent of the shots on target while shipping 61 goals overall.

POTENTIAL STARTING XI

Southampton Lineup

The interesting thing about Southampton is despite its struggles last season, there is quality to be found throughout all three outfield positions, and Hughes could have some selection headaches this time around. Angus Gunn arrives from Manchester City to challenge McCarthy for the No. 1 shirt, leaving Forster as the odd man out as Southampton are looking to move the keeper.

There is plenty of quality in defense as World Cup starters Cedric Soares (Portugal), Jen Bednarek (Poland), and Maya Yoshida (Japan) will likely be joined by Denmark reserve Jannik Vestergaard, who spent the last two seasons with Borussia Monchengladbach. Having the cloud of uncertainty of Virgil Van Dijk’s status removed with his January transfer to Liverpool coupled with a summer training camp under Hughes could prove to be addition by subtraction.

The biggest overhaul is in the midfield where newcomers Mohamed Elyounoussi (FC Basle) and Stuart Armstrong (Celtic) will contend for spots in the starting XI against holdovers Nathan Redmond, James Ward-Prowse, with defensive midfielders Oriol Romeu and Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg waiting in support.

Up front, Austin is again expected to lead the line with Gabbiadini and Shane Long further options. This could be the weakest link in the squad, though there are rumours Southampton is trying to bring Liverpool striker Danny Ings on board.

THE NEW GUYS AND THE GONE GUYS

Elyounoussi, a £16 million signing, scored 24 goals in 84 matches over the last two seasons in helping win Basle win two domestic titles and reaching the group stages of the Champions League in 2017-18  while Armstrong — a £7 million signing — was one of the linchpins of the Scottish power who won a domestic treble in each of the last four seasons and racked up 21 goals in 86 contests in the last two.

Gunn, who has progressed up England’s youth program, spent last season on loan at Norwich City where he recorded 15 shutouts. The 22-year-old, though, is behind Ederson and Claudio Bravo on Man City’s depth chart, necessitating the need to loan him out once more.

While the 6-foot-7 Vestergaard did not appear in any of Denmark’s four World Cup matches, he did score seven goals in 66 matches with Borussia MG and brings sorely needed size to deal with aerial crosses and corner kicks on the defensive end.

To help make room for these players, Southampton parted ways with Tadic (Ajax) and Sofiane Boufal (Celta Vigo).

THE GUY WORTH SEEING

Stuart Armstrong (MF)

Armstrong arrives at St Mary’s with high expectations after debuting at 18 with Dundee United and climbing up the SPL food chain to Celtic, where he was a fixture in the starting XI when healthy and a key cog in Brendan Rodgers’ dominant squad. His pairing with Elyounoussi in the midfield will be important considering Southampton scored two or more goals in just nine league matches last season — with two of those occasions coming against relegated and last-place side West Bromwich Albion.

PUNTERS’ NOTES

Per Ladbrokes, Southampton is in the middle of the pack with 7/1 odds to be relegated, which is somewhat surprising given how narrowly survived last season. The Saints are 10th-most likely to finish in the bottom half at 4/7 odds but sixth-best to finish in the top half at 11/8 odds. It’s a longer road for a top-six spot, ranking 11th at 14/1 odds.

FIRST FOUR MATCHES/LAST FOUR MATCHES

Aug. 12 — Burnley (7th) H
Aug. 18 — Everton (8th) A
Aug. 25 — Leicester City (9th) H
Sept. 1 — Crystal Palace (11th) A
————-
April 20 — Newcastle United (10th) A
April 27 — Bournemouth (12th) H
May 4 — West Ham United (13th) A
May 12 — Huddersfield Town (16th) H

OUTLOOK

It is slightly difficult where to peg Southampton. The Saints could be a team whose parts are greater than the sum of the whole given the talent sprinkled throughout their top 15-18 players, or they could emerge as a comfortable mid-table squad which pulls together in the same direction going forward.

The key to all this is Hughes. For all intents and purposes, it appeared the game had passed him by last season at Stoke City, and his resurfacing at St Mary’s to perform what turned out to be a successful rescue mission was somewhat surprising. To be associated with two teams being relegated in the same season would have been an albatross that may have weighed too heavily on “Sparky” going forward, yet he persevered and kept the Saints in the top flight.

Having a summer to instill his methods and philosophy will serve him well, but it will also be interesting to see if Southampton return to the positive football it enjoyed under predecessors Mauricio Pochettino and Ronald Koemann as opposed to their successors Claude Puel and Pellegrino.

Hughes did not lack for attacking talent with the Potters before being sacked last campaign, but a defense that was repeatedly torn to ribbons before a loss to League Two Coventry City in the FA Cup was understandably a bridge too far for Stoke supporters.

Southampton’s first four matches will be a good barometer of what this side’s aspirations should be because all four sides are currently where the Saints used to be under Pochettino and Koeman. It is possible the Saints may be only a notch below that. But it also seems likely they will be in a relegation scrap for most of the campaign before saving it late.

PREDICTED FINISH

16th place

PREVIOUS TEAMS’ PREVIEWS

July 18 — Fulham                                      July 28 — Newcastle United
July 19 — Cardiff City                               July 29 — Leicester City
July 20 — Wolverhampton                      July 30 — Everton
July 21 — Southampton                           July 31 — Burnley
July 22 — Huddersfield Town                 August 1 — Arsenal
July 23 — Brighton and Hove Albion    August 2 — Chelsea
July 24 — Watford                                     August 3 — Liverpool
July 25 — West Ham United                    August 4 — Tottenham Hotspur
July 26 — Bournemouth                           August 5 — Manchester United
July 27 — Crystal Palace                           August 6 — Manchester City