28 minutes into the EFL Cup quarterfinal tie between Southampton and Manchester City, it was clear that something unusual, almost inevitable, was about to happen.
The Saints flew out of the blocks; rampant, direct, willing to create chaos with every attacking phase. And in five blurry minutes midway through the first half, Nathan Jones’ men were 2-0 up. The away fans soon went quiet, their heads dropping in disbelief. For most of it, it felt like jerseys had been swapped somewhere in between.
The final whistle sounded, and Southampton were through to the last four, having comfortably defeated the Premier League champions.
They will now face a transformed Newcastle side, who expectedly eased past Leicester City 2-0 in the previous round.
And yet, in the other semi-final match, Nottingham Forest, who are having an unforgettable 2023, surprising everyone and themselves, take on Manchester United. The Tricky Trees overcame Wolves on penalties, while Marcus Rashford scored a late brace to eliminate a resilient Charlton team.
It is fair to expect a fiercely contested affair between these teams, who will fancy their chances of winning a title this season.
Southampton vs Newcastle
For all of Southampton’s tepid displays in the Premier League, for which they are languishing in bottom place, they have navigated their cup matches successfully. Jones has overseen two excellent results in the FA and EFL Cup.
The 49-year-old manager, while acknowledging the tough nature of this encounter, will be reluctant to remove the underdog tag from his team. He will likely set his team up to sit deep, fight for every ball in defence and seize the potential moments in attack.
James Ward-Prowse remains the team’s best player. The midfielder’s ability to pick out the forwards, particularly Che Adams, will be crucial. Indeed, the Scottish striker has scored four times in this competition. Ward-Prowse’s set-piece quality might yet make a difference. Seeing that there will be a return leg at St. James’ Park, Jones will be keen to ensure that his side is still in the game after 90 minutes.
For Newcastle, their recent struggles in attack will have Eddie Howe scratching his head. The Magpies have scored just four goals in their last six matches.
Yet, their 4-1 defeat of Southampton earlier in the season will have them believing. Bruno Guimaraes will need to be steady, ensuring control of the midfield.
Joelington, Miguel Almiron, and Allan Saint-Maximin will get the responsibility of creating chances for Alexander Isak. The trio will look to expand the pitch and isolate the opposition’s full-backs.
While Southampton will hope to stretch the game for as long as possible, Newcastle will be desperate for an early goal. This is shaping up to be a largely cagey affair.
Nottingham Forest vs Manchester United
Nottingham Forest cannot be short on confidence given their exploits this year. Steve Cooper’s men are now four matches unbeaten in all competitions. They have also not lost at home in eight games.
The likes of Taiwo Awoniyi and Brennan Johnson have stepped up to the plate in recent weeks, while Dean Henderson continues to hold his own in goal. Unfortunately, the latter duo will be unavailable for tonight’s encounter.
Copper will be keen to retain his team’s aggression off the ball. In effect, Willy Boly will have his work cut out in defence against the 6-foot frame of Wout Weghorst.
Johnson will get the freedom to take on United’s Tyrell Malacia and deliver crosses for Morgan Gibbs-White.
Manchester United are still challenging on all fronts this season, although they suffered a late defeat at the Emirates against Arsenal.
Erik Ten Hag will be keen to put the loss behind him, hoping to guide them to their first EFL Cup final in six seasons. The Dutch manager will be eager for his men to move positions quickly, knowing that they are likely to have the ball for most of the game.
Ten Hag will count on Bruno Fernandes’ directness and technical ability in finding the in-form Marcus Rashford. The England forward has been outstanding since the World Cup. He will be confident of finding the net against Nottingham Forest.
Antony has flattered to deceive since his arrival at Old Trafford. The Brazilian winger will relentlessly attempt to go past Renan Lodi, cut in to his favourite left foot, and find the target.
A chance to play at Wembley is on the cards, and neither side will be quick to give in. Yet a slim victory for the Manchester team seems almost guaranteed.