April 27 (Reuters) - By the time Liverpool’s Virgil van Dijk hopes to cap his season in triumph in next month’s Champions League final, his former side Southampton will know whether their own year has ended in disaster.
While Van Dijk needs only to successfully organise Liverpool’s defence of their three-goal lead in next week’s semi-final second leg against AS Roma to reach Kiev, Saints face a less seemly domestic scrap to avoid relegation from the Premier League.
Saturday’s home game with rivals Bournemouth is described as a “must win” but, without a league victory in nine games and four points from safety, the omens are not promising.
The expected “new manager bounce” of appointing Mark Hughes in place of the sacked Mauricio Pellegrino turned out to be a barely detectable twitch and 16 million pound ($22.06 million) midfielder Sofiane Boufal has been ordered to train with the youth team after ignoring orders.
As the inquests begin on a season of unpredicted turbulence, supporters can be forgiven for pondering what might have been had the club not sold Van Dijk for 75 million pounds in January.
His stunning success at Liverpool, where he plays alongside five other ex-Saints, has come at the worst possible time for his former club, with Wes Hoedt, a close season signing from Lazio, struggling to step up.
Other new signings have also failed to impress with Guido Carrillo, the club’s record 19.2 million pound purchase from Monaco in January, still without a goal and an unused substitute in last week’s FA Cup semi-final defeat by Chelsea.
For the first time, the club’s business model of developing talent, selling on at huge profits and replacing with either academy players or bargain buys from abroad is being questioned.
Established players like Dusan Tadic, Cedric Soares, Oriel Romeu and Manolo Gabbiadini have failed to reproduce their form of last season that secured an eighth-placed finish and James Ward-Prowse is the only home-grown star to enhance his reputation.
Meanwhile, a new threat has emerged to Southampton’s long-term stability in terms of the huge contracts they are being forced to hand their players in return for competing in the Premier League.
While much has been made of the 300 million pounds collected from recent transfers — a nominal paper profit of nearly 30 million has been made on this season’s activity alone — the wage bill for those that remained has grown by almost 100m in six years from 15.2m in 2010-11 to 112.5m last season.
That astonishing rise represents the cost of competing to stay in the Premier League and the thinking was outlined by Southampton’s managing director Toby Steele in presenting the club’s last set of accounts.
“The strategy we had at the back end of 15-16 season and the start of 16-17 was really to try and strengthen the squad, and grow that average contract length remaining,” he said.
While Saints would be protected by financial parachute payments should they go down, the fate of Sunderland, who have just suffered a second relegation in two years, shows the danger facing a club regarded as one of the best run in England.
It was that reputation that persuaded Chinese businessman Jisheng Gao to pay around 200 million pounds for an 80 percent stake in the club last August.
Earlier this week it was announced that Southampton will undertake a pre-season tour of China in July to increase their presence there.
But showing off a Championship side was surely never part of Gao’s business strategy. Like many others at the club, he may be having a quick rethink. ($1 = 0.7252 pounds) (Reporting by Neil Robinson Editing by Christian Radnedge)