Belfast Telegraph

Hughes puzzled by pressure on opposite number Puel

Mark Hughes cannot understand the "puzzling" pressure that is building on Southampton manager Claude Puel after he led his team to an eighth-placed Premier League finish.

During the Frenchman's first season in English football he also took Saints to the EFL Cup final, where they lost to Manchester United, despite injuries to Charlie Austin and Virgil van Dijk and the sale of captain Jose Fonte during a total of 53 fixtures.

During Hughes' only full season as a Southampton player, in 1998/99, they narrowly avoided relegation. He has also been under little pressure while manager of Stoke, where this season's 13th-placed finish follows three in which they came ninth.

Peter Crouch's second-half headed goal, a record 50th in the Premier League, combined with goalkeeper Jack Butland's resilience secured three points for Hughes' team to ensure Southampton went a fifth straight home game without scoring.

Regardless of that record Hughes is defensive of the work Puel, 55, has done. The financial strength of the division's leading seven teams is widely considered too great for those below them to overcome, and discussing reports Puel is at risk of the sack, Hughes said: "It is a little bit puzzling.

"Correct me if I am wrong, but they are eighth. Maybe it's the expectation.

"When you raise the expectation - and Southampton have been excellent for a number of years - people think they are disappointed but if you look at it in the whole, maybe they haven't done as bad as people are making out.

"Sometimes you can't understand it. People get disappointed when you lose games. I am not immune to criticism. I have had some myself.

"Deep down they want to be able to feel you are taking the club in the right direction. The vast majority of supporters who are able to take an overview of what you are doing, realise it is a difficult job and everyone is trying to do it to the best of their ability.

"We finished 13th. That is the first time I have been outside the top 10 when I have been in charge for a Premier League club for a full season. We finished 13th but we are two points behind Southampton who are in eighth. That is the margins.

"That group of teams have been like that all year. Very, very close, and one result can take you up four or five spots."

Of Crouch's goal at St Mary's, he added: "We all know that if we give Crouchie the service, he is the best at what he does. He has had a great career and we hope there is more to come."

Puel insisted he was unconcerned at the home crowd chanting "You don't know what you're doing" and the way they booed first his substitutions and then him at the final whistle.

The club will imminently review his position, but he said: "I want to stay with all the positives and to finish eighth, I'm proud.

"It's a difficult season for the staff but it's a difficult season for the squad. We lost important players for the team and every time we found a solution.

"To see Nathan Redmond and James Ward-Prowse as international players is a good thing also. Many good things.

"All my players improved and learned this season and this is important.

"I repeat, eighth in the table in a difficult championship, with all the good teams in the first places, is good. We deserved other things also in the cup final.

"It's a good, positive season."

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