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Claude Puel's route to Wembley: Southampton boss' rise examined

Claude Puel is the new Southampton manager for the 2016/17 season
Image: Can Claude Puel lead Southampton to EFL Cup final success in his first campaign in charge of the club?

Claude Puel has guided Southampton to their first League Cup final for more than 25 years in his debut season at St Mary's, but who is the man in charge of the south coast club?

The Saints surprised many by getting the better of much-fancied Liverpool in the EFL Cup semi-finals, with Puel's side winning both legs of the tie 1-0 to progress to a Wembley meeting with Man Utd.

Puel and his players will once again be underdogs as they attempt to win Southampton's first piece of silverware since beating of all teams, United, to land the 1976 FA Cup.

Ahead of Sunday's showdown at the home of football, though, Jose Mourinho would be advised not to underestimate the wily Frenchman with more than 35 years' experience in the game.

As a player, Puel was a tough-tackling defensive midfielder at Monaco, who he played nearly 500 matches for between 1979 and 1996, seven of which were under Arsene Wenger's tutelage.

"Puel was well known in training to be a good tackler," Wenger recalled of his one-time enforcer. "Even on the morning of a cup final he could tackle and even if it was the manager then no problem! He was a fighter as a player and he will be a fighter as a manager."

Claude Puel thrilled to be going up against Arsene Wenger
Image: Puel played under Arsene Wenger as a holding midfielder at Monaco

In fact, Puel recalls one such occasion when he left his mentor on his backside in training in an attempt to persuade the then Monaco boss to recall him to the starting line-up.

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"I felt Arsene was leaving me on the bench too often," Puel told the Daily Telegraph. "He had organised a small match between us during training and he decided to take part.

"I tackled him in the game, he went flying and landed on his back. He couldn't move. He wasn't happy, but that didn't stop him putting me in the team for the next game."

Meanwhile, a former Monaco team-mate, Glenn Hoddle, rates Puel as one of the hardest-working players he's known and L'Equipe's chief football writer Erik Bielderman even likens him to Roy Keane.

Puel, 55, credits the current Arsenal manager as being a key influence on his coaching career, with the duo winning Ligue 1 (1988) and the Coupe de France (1991) during their time together at the Stade Louis II, as well as reaching the 1992 Cup-Winners' Cup final.

Live EFL Cup Final

"Of course Arsene Wenger was very important for me," Puel told Sky Sports News HQ.

"I learned from him during seven years at Monaco, it's a long time and now it's interesting to see all the great trainers to develop what I can do."

Two years after Wenger left the Principality for the J-League, Puel hung up his boots, although he remained with the club he had been at since 1979 as a fitness coach and then reserve-team manager.

It was at Monaco's training ground, situated in the mountain village of La Turbie, that Puel first began to hone Thierry Henry's skills as an attacker, skills that would later be used to devastate Premier League defences.

If you want to work and you're willing to listen, you're going to improve with Claude
Thierry Henry

"I played with him and had him as a fitness coach as well," Henry told Sky Sports. "He helped me work on bending the ball and stayed with me after training to develop my finishing. If you want to work and you're willing to listen, you're going to improve with Claude Puel."

Henry never forgot this and even dedicated the goal that sealed France's qualification for the 2006 World Cup to Puel.

In January 1999, Puel was promoted to replace Jean Tigana as Monaco head coach, winning the title and being named Manager of the Year in his first full campaign at the helm in the South of France.

As well as Henry, Puel was also credited with developing future stars such as Ludovic Giuly, David Trezeguet and Marcelo Gallardo during his two-and-a-half seasons at the club.

However, Puel's 24-year association as both a player and manager at Monaco came to an abrupt end in the summer of 2001, before a six-year spell at less fashionable Lille soon followed.

There, as well as continuing his reputation for giving youth a chance after inviting a 16-year-old Eden Hazard to train with the first team, Puel - on one of the smaller budgets in France - took the club to their highest league finish in 50 years and again won the country's Manager of the Year award.

That runners-up finish in Ligue 1 in 2004-05 led to participation in the Champions League the following season, a feat Lille repeated two years later when they reached the last 16.

The club, though, were knocked out by United in controversial circumstances that showed another side to the normally calm Frenchman.

The Lille team trains watched by coach Claude Puel in March 2007 in Manchester before a Champions League tie
Image: Puel prepares his Lille players to face Man Utd in the last 16 of the Champions League in February 2007

Alex Ferguson's side won the first leg at the Stade Felix-Bollaert thanks to Ryan Giggs' quickly taken free kick seven minutes from time, but Puel threatened to lead his players off in protest after the Welshman's winner came with goalkeeper Tony Sylva still organising his wall.

After his relative success at Lille, Puel then took the reins at Lyon, where he was known for trying to beat his players in pre-season mountain bike Alpine climbs.

But despite guiding the club to the semi-finals of the Champions League for the first time ever in 2010, eliminating the Galacticos of Real Madrid along the way, his time at the Stade de Gerland was deemed a failure.

Lyon's coach Claude Puel congratulates his players after they scored a goal during the French L1 football match Lyon vs. Lille, on October 18, 2008
Image: Puel during his time in charge of Lyon

Lyon had won the previous seven Ligue 1 titles in a row before his arrival, but after embarking on the biggest spending spree in French history, including mammoth outlays on the likes of Yoann Gourcuff and Lisandro Lopez, the club won nothing under Puel and he was sacked in 2011 after falling out with president Jean-Michel Aulas.

Puel opted to take a brief time out of the game and was once again reunited with his mentor, this time in north London.

"After being Lyon manager, I had a sabbatical year and went to see Arsenal train and play thanks to my contact with him [Wenger]," he recalls, before taking the Nice job in 2012.

Puel guided the tiny Mediterranean side to fourth in his first year in charge - their best league finish since 1976 - and then repeated the feat last season with a team built around current Leicester City midfielder Nampalys Mendy and the mercurial talents of Hatem Ben Arfa, who scored 17 goals.

Nice's French head coach Claude Puel (L) talks with Nice's French forward Hatem Ben Arfa (R) during the French L1 football match Olympique Lyonnais and OGC
Image: Puel re-ignited the career of Hatem Ben Arfa while at Nice

Under Puel, the former Newcastle United winger won a recall to the French national team and a place on the Ligue 1 Player of the Year shortlist, once again demonstrating his outstanding man-management skills and ability to extract the best from those players willing to listen to him.

"Everyone wanted to watch Nice last year," said Henry. "He managed to get the best out of Ben Arfa and I'm not surprised. He'd go through walls as a player and he'll demand that of his players. He'll want a team that plays with discipline and organisation but also freedom."

Puel promoted no fewer than 16 youngsters from the academy to the first team and kept getting results in the process, including qualifying for the Europa League proper for the first time in almost 40 years.

Nice's supporters cheer behind a banner showing their gratitude to coach Claude Puel during a game against Lyon in May 2013
Image: Nice fans showing their gratitude to Puel

His exploits in France, particularly at Lille and Nice, also highlighted an ability to build a team capable of beating those with greater financial resources, as seen by Southampton's run all the way to Wembley.

"There is one word to describe him: builder," French journalist Maxime Dupuis said of his compatriot. "This guy is perfect to build something with young players."

And despite the Southampton job being his first outside his homeland, the Frenchman has continued that at St Mary's this season.

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Highlights of the EFL Cup Semi-final match between Liverpool and Southampton

Puel immediately spotted that winger Nathan Redmond could be better deployed as a forward, with the player responding by scoring Southampton's winner in their EFL Cup semi-final first-leg win over Liverpool at St Mary's in January.

"He played always wide, but I think he is a very good striker," said Puel, who also had no hesitation in throwing England U21 international Jack Stephens in at the deep end in the second leg after an injury to captain Virgil van Dijk.

"It was an exciting game for him to play, but it was potentially difficult for him too," was Puel's verdict of how the 23-year-old centre back performed in the visitors' 1-0 victory at Anfield.

"He was calm and mature. I saw him play for the U23 team and it made me realise picking him would be a normal selection. I am very pleased for all of the people in the academy who have worked very hard with him."

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Watch highlights of the EFL Cup Semi-final first-leg between Southampton and Liverpool at St Mary's

Another youngster hoping to be involved against United this weekend, midfielder Harrison Reed, has spoken in glowing terms of training under Puel this season.

"It's a lot of technical stuff - short, sharp stuff," he commented of the man who gave professional debuts to future Premier League stars such as Kevin Mirallas, Yohan Cabaye, Mathieu Debuchy and Hazard.

However, with the League Cup up for grabs at Wembley on Sunday afternoon, do not think for one moment that Puel will not be prepared to sacrifice his footballing principles for the chance to lead Southampton to their first trophy in 41 years.

"Puel loves entertaining football, but is also realistic," says Bielderman.

Mourinho and United have been warned…

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