With Southampton heading into their first major cup final since 2003, Claude Puel will be trying to revive the spirit of 1976 and their last major trophy, when they beat Manchester United 1-0. Now facing the Red Devils once more, they will need some divine inspiration to repeat the feat.
Enter, Manolo Gabbiadini. Three goals in two games in red and white have helped them stay away from drifting into relegation trouble and given the team a well needed boost before a date with Wembley. The £14 million signing from Napoli has hit the ground running and fans have renewed hope of upsetting the odds in the EFL Cup yet again.
His stunning finish on debut against West Ham was the 400th netted by an Italian in the Premier League. There may only be a handful of successful Azzuri talents in England’s top tier; Paulo Di Canio, Gianfranco Zola, Roberto Di Matteo and to some extent Carlo Cudicini, but if his start is anything to go by, his flair and skill will take him far.
He became a bench player in Naples, only scoring three in his 13 appearances this campaign in Serie A. In a league where there’s more space, more defences capable of exposing and at a team where he will be a focal point, Saints fans will hope for more of the same quality shown in his recent displays.
They don’t play again until a trip up the M3 to Wembley Stadium. All their focus will be on this one-off tie, where as seen before, a shock is possible. Birmingham toppled Arsenal when unfancied back in 2011, as did Wigan when faced with Manchester City in the FA Cup in 2013. Both went on to be relegated, but that shouldn’t scare Southampton
Saints have a break to prepare for the final and no immediate worries of relegation. They’ve taken down Arsenal and Liverpool in this competition and they deserve their place at Wembley. Gabbiadini has experience in elite European competition, so won’t be daunted by the hallowed turf of the ‘Home of Football’.
Record signing Sofiane Boufal hasn’t found the consistency to prove his record fee yet and captain Virgil Van Dijk is injured for the game, meaning they must look elsewhere for heroes. Shane Long, Nathan Redmond and Jordy Clasie have stepped up during their run, Gabbiadini’s stage awaits for him to follow.
A silky touch, diverse finisher and intelligent runner, his best may be to come further down the line at St Mary’s, but supporters will hope their Italian Stallion can roll back the years of Bobby Stokes and beat Manchester United for a cup as they did in 1976.