Wembley clash can be a defining moment for EFL Cup rivals

24 February 2017 11:39

Manchester United v Southampton - Jose Mourinho's well-drilled machine versus the constantly regenerating upstarts.

Sunday's EFL Cup final pits a side looking to kick-start a period of sustained success against a club looking to win the second major trophy in their history.

While a mere three points separated these sides in the final Premier League standings last season, the gulf in financial power and expectation is stark.

For United, victory at Wembley feels crucial - not because of the importance of EFL Cup glory but for what it represents.

Mourinho may count the Community Shield as a trophy but such successes are not what a club like his is built on. Admittedly, ambitions at Old Trafford are far higher than the EFL Cup but it is about what victory at Wembley can breed.

United appear on an upward trajectory under the Portuguese's charge. Some creases are proving harder to iron out than others, but Mourinho has so far been relatively successful in juggling European and domestic exertions while attempting to get the club back to the top.

A top-four finish rather than 21st league title is now this season's ambition, but victory in the EFL Cup final can act as a catalyst to further successes - just as it did when he first took charge of Chelsea, with this competition the first he won in English football.

United have won the League Cup four times in their history, most recently in 2010 when Wayne Rooney came off the bench to secure a 2-1 win against Aston Villa.

Saints were also celebrating that February weekend seven years ago, with Lee Barnard netting a brace en route to a 5-1 win against Walsall the previous day.

Southampton were then a League One side basking in the afterglow of optimism, having been dragged away from the precipice the previous summer by saviour Markus Liebherr.

The excitement grew as Saints won March's Johnstone's Paint Trophy final against Carlisle - the club's last appearance at Wembley and, sadly, as high as their owner saw them climb.

Liebherr died aged 62 in August 2010 but his legacy lives on and his name will echo around Wembley on Sunday, just as it has in stadiums at home and abroad during Southampton's rise.

Back-to-back promotions from League One have been followed by bettering their Premier League finish each season, despite seeing their best players, and sometimes their coaching staff, poached by those with deeper pockets each summer.

Remarkably, though, Saints have managed to stay steady during such uneasy times and, while surpassing last year's sixth-place finish looks unlikely, a first major trophy since 1976 would see this group go down in history.

Claude Puel's men do not need to look far for inspiration either as 41 years ago few expected second division Southampton to lay a glove on much-fancied United, let alone beat them in the FA Cup final.

Odds on a repeat of the famous win of 1976 are shorter this time but United are again overriding favourites for a final that will go a long way to defining both clubs' current position.

A second major trophy since Sir Alex Ferguson's retirement will provide the Red Devils with an important platform for the future.

As for Southampton, w inning the second major trophy in their history will create new heroes.

Source: PA