Virgil van Dijk dealt EFL Cup final blow as Southampton star faces long absence
Southampton defender Virgil van Dijk will miss the EFL Cup final against Manchester United.
The Dutch centre-half suffered an ankle injury against Leicester on January 22 and manager Claude Puel revealed on Thursday he faces up to three months on the sidelines.
That means he is certain to be out of the Wembley cup clash against Jose Mourinho's United on February 26.
"He will not be available for many weeks, two or three months," said Puel.
"It's an important problem and difficult for us. He is important for the group and the fans with his quality and leadership.
"It's a blow but we will find a solution. For the semi-final second leg against Liverpool we got a fantastic result without him and we will continue with other possibilities.
"Ryan Bertrand can play in this position, and we will see with young players like Jack Stephens. We have possibilities."
Having sold Jose Fonte to West Ham, Puel finds himself light in central defence having been unable to bring in reinforcements in the January transfer window.
"We studied a lot of solutions and possibilities but we could not find a good opportunity in January," the Frenchman added.
"We worked hard but without success so we continue with this squad to find a solution."
The sale of Fonte, or at least the failure to secure a replacement for him, appears even more crucial in light of Van Dijk's absence.
But Puel insisted: "It's difficult. I think it was the last opportunity for a last contract for Jose.
"I understand the player, he wanted a big contract, and I understand the position of the club for the future.
"I think it was the best position for both parties.
"Of course we wanted to replace him and now we are unhappy with the injury of Virgil. We worked hard but could not find a solution.
"It's different because Jose is not just a player, not just a centre-back, he was the captain, and it was a deal with a club.
"All this was not an obligation, but almost. Keeping a player who is unhappy is difficult. It's always a problem in the team and the squad so it was important."
Fonte made his West Ham debut in a 4-0 defeat against Manchester City on Wednesday night and makes a swift return to St Mary's with his new club on Saturday.