Jurgen Klopp insists Liverpool will be Premier League contenders next season after ending an underwhelming campaign with a thrilling 4-4 draw at relegated Southampton.

The fifth-placed Reds arrived at St Mary’s knowing they had already missed out on a top-four finish for the first time since 2015-16.

Early goals from Diogo Jota and Roberto Firmino appeared to have put the in-form visitors on course for a straightforward success on the south coast.

But they were forced to come from 4-2 behind to stretch their unbeaten run to 11 games following Kamaldeen Sulemana’s brace and strikes from James Ward-Prowse and Adam Armstrong.

Liverpool boss Klopp, whose side avoided defeat thanks to a goal from substitute Cody Gakpo and Jota’s second, was happy to see the back of 2022-23 and confident next term would be far more memorable.

“There were moments during the season when you thought ‘the season will be four years long’,” he said.

“Thank God for the last 11 games, that helped massively, gave us a real boost, gave us a perspective, gave us a basis for what we have to do.

“That it didn’t turn into the best ever season, we see that, we know that, we are very disappointed about the fact that we didn’t make it to the top four.

“But there are moments when you have to admit there were four teams that were better than us – that’s the truth.

“We played a bad season, we come fifth, that is a message as well.

“Imagine we were our normal self, which we absolutely will be again next season and will be a contender again. That’s how is it. The last 11 games helped us to realise that again.”

Gakpo and Jota struck in the 72nd and 73rd minutes respectively to prevent Liverpool slipping to a shock defeat, while Mohamed Salah hit a post late on.

Klopp felt his players contributed to their own undoing during a “silly” period of a chaotic contest.

“We are 2-0 up and you know these Southampton players want to pay back to these people (home fans) and we let them, just opened the door for a really talented offensive team, with the speed they have,” he said.

“I can make a list of things we weren’t and that led to the counter attacks they had.

“Then it’s 2-2 and 4-2 and then we started doing the right things again. I think we could have scored a fifth and a sixth.

“Top start, outstanding finish, in between just silly.”

Liverpool blew a two-goal lead before battling back from 4-2 down to end an underwhelming Premier League season with a remarkable 4-4 draw at relegated Southampton.

Quick-fire finishes from Cody Gakpo and Diogo Jota salvaged a point for Jurgen Klopp’s side on a chaotic afternoon at St Mary’s.

Saints had looked set to end a miserable campaign in style after Kamaldeen Sulemana’s brace, either side of strikes from James Ward-Prowse and Adam Armstrong overturned early goals from Jota and Roberto Firmino.

But Southampton’s final match under manager Ruben Selles, who is expected to be replaced by Swansea boss Russell Martin in the coming days, ended all square after Gakpo and Jota struck in the space of a minute.

Fifth-placed Liverpool went close to leaving the south coast with maximum points as Mohamed Salah inadvertently struck a post and was denied by a fine stop from Alex McCarthy late on.

But the Merseyside club had to be content with extending their unbeaten top-flight run to 11 games, having begun the day knowing they would miss out on a top-four finish for the first time since 2015-16.

James Milner and Firmino started on their farewell appearances for the Europa League-bound Reds as manager Klopp made seven changes, including selecting Caoimhin Kelleher in goal.

With Southampton seeking to restore a modicum of pride after their fate was sealed a fortnight ago, Liverpool initially looked like they would canter to victory.

Dreadful defending gifted the visitors the 10th-minute opener as Jota fired into an unguarded net from close range after being teed up by a woeful pass from Romeo Lavia as Saints attempted to play out from the back.

Firmino swiftly doubled the Reds’ advantage, collecting a pass from Fabinho on the edge of the hosts’ 18-yard box before dummying his way beyond Lyanco and Jan Bednarek and driving through the legs of Saints goalkeeper McCarthy.

There was a strong sense of deja vu for long-suffering home fans who have witnessed just two home league wins all season but Southampton responded by showing the fight they have so often lacked.

Long-serving midfielder Ward-Prowse – who was potentially making his final Saints appearance ahead of a mooted summer move – halved the deficit in the 19th minute by coolly slotting into the bottom-right corner after being picked out by Carlos Alcaraz.

And Selles’ side were level just nine minutes later.

Firmino sloppily conceded possession to Lavia close to the halfway line as Liverpool attempted to break, allowing Theo Walcott to slide in Sulemana, who fired his first goal in English football under Kelleher.

Sulemana stylishly completed Southampton’s stunning comeback just two minutes into the second period.

The Ghana international collected the ball midway inside his own half, eased past Fabinho and then accelerated unchallenged to the edge of the box before bending into the bottom-right corner and celebrating with a backflip.

And the Reds were soon facing a major uphill battle to salvage something as substitute Armstrong made an immediate impact.

A minute after replacing Lavia, the striker intercepted Jordan Henderson’s careless pass and raced forward before his low-angled finish into the bottom-right corner seemed to catch Kelleher out of position.

Liverpool were stunned by the extraordinary turnaround but intent to protect an unbeaten run dating back to April 1.

Gakpo – a one-time Southampton target – halved Saints’ lead by tapping in Trent Alexander-Arnold’s volleyed cross in the 72nd minute before Jota found space to lash home his second from Salah’s pass moments later.

Salah almost snatched victory for the Reds 11 minutes from time but his attempted control from a long pass struck the left post after looping over the head of McCarthy and the spoils were shared.

Ruben Selles hopes relegated Southampton can go out on a high when they bid farewell to the Premier League against Liverpool on Sunday.

A wretched campaign full of poor decisions meant Saints knew their 11-year stay in the Premier League was over with two games to spare.

Southampton are on a winless 12-match run and have lost their last five on the bounce, with Swansea boss Russell Martin lined up as manager as they prepare for life in the Championship.

Selles hopes his last match in charge ends with a positive result on Sunday, which could also see homegrown skipper James Ward-Prowse make an emotional farewell.

“I think you need to choose in which mode you are every day,” Selles said of the atmosphere at St Mary’s on Sunday. “I think the fans need to do the same.

“I know, I understand the disappointment of the season but, as you say, it can be the sun shining and then a big opponent, last game in St Mary’s in the Premier League this year.

“We will not have for at least one more year and I think it’s a good opportunity to go on a journey together and try to make a good football match.

“I thank our fans for being supportive in one of the hardest seasons that they had in the last 12 years.

“Hopefully we can have a good environment on Sunday and then we can make something together.”

Perhaps boosting Saints’ chance of a shock is the fact Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool know they cannot reach the Champions League and will finish fifth after Manchester United beat Chelsea on Thursday.

“It’s always a tricky question because I know Jurgen (Klopp) said that he will make some changes in the line-up probably,” he said.

“It’s a situation with less pressure than if they were playing from the Champions League, of course.

“But sometimes less pressure means more freedom and sometimes more freedom (helps), and they can go in both directions, so it’s just a different game.”

The match could see academy products Theo Walcott and Mohamed Elyounoussi play their last games for Saints given their contracts expire in the summer.

Che Adams, Mohammed Salisu, Armel Bella-Kotchap and Juan Larios are out through injury, while ineffective January signing Paul Onuachu is a doubt with a back problem.

But there could be some positives to hold onto, with teenagers Kamari Doyle and Dom Ballard pushing for game time after making their league debuts last weekend.

Talented full-back Tino Livramento could also get some time off the bench after ending his 392-day injury lay-off when coming on for 20 minutes at Brighton.

“Tino will not play from the start due to his time restriction,” Selles said.

“He can play at least the same amount of minutes as he did against Brighton.”

Ruben Selles is disappointed not to have been kept on as Southampton manager as he feels ready to lead the side despite overseeing their meek relegation.

A myriad of bad decisions on and off the field has brought Saints’ 11-year stay in the Premier League to a crushing end.

Ralph Hasenhuttl started the season in charge and was replaced by divisive Nathan Jones, with an initial upturn under Selles quickly flatlining after being handed the job for the rest of the campaign.

Saints were relegated with two games to spare and the club announced on Wednesday that the Spaniard’s contract “will not be renewed when it expires at the end of the season”.

Selles found that out on Monday and will take charge for the final time against Liverpool on Sunday, with Russell Martin then set to come in as Southampton prepare for life in the Championship.

“Listen, I did as much as I can, I show here every weekend with you, I make the team being competitive,” he said.

“We didn’t get the football, the results that we expected to have.

“I think you saw an identity, you saw a team that wants to play together. We didn’t make it.

“I tried to put everything every time with this sort of mentality and in that part I did my best and that’s the reality. I cannot change the decision from the owners.

“I still think I’m ready but it’s not my call and, yeah, my feeling right now is just to finish in the best way possible, to prepare the Liverpool game.

“And then on Monday, we will think about something different.”

Selles joined Saints from Copenhagen last summer as first-team lead coach supporting Hasenhuttl having enjoyed a varied coaching career that had taken him from Spain to the likes of Russia and Azerbaijan.

But now the 39-year-old sees himself in England and hopes to be able to stay coaching there at a high level.

“Of course, I would like to stay here and I would like to stay in the top level that I can stay,” Selles said. “If it’s not Premier League, it’s very close to that.

“My target has been always to be competing against the best and with the best.

“That’s what I have been doing in the last three months and I want to be here back and I want to find myself back as quick as possible.”

As Selles’ time at St Mary’s comes to a close on Sunday, attention turns to the new era under impending appointment of Martin.

The PA news agency understands the Swansea boss is poised to become Southampton head coach on a three-year deal.

“I just make my opinion of all of them as a squad, as individual players,” Selles said of the squad Martin will inherit.

“I don’t know who is the new coach. You maybe probably know that better than me but, actually, it’s not for me.

“I just told the club what I think. I told before this week what I think is what we need to do to rebuild the squad for the Championship or for the Premier League in that time if we stay.

“So, they know my opinion, but they can do with that what they want.”

Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp admits his side failed to live up to expectations this season and has no issue with Mohamed Salah saying the team let down fans.

Writing on social media after Manchester United’s win over Chelsea on Thursday night consigned Liverpool to Europa League football, the Egypt international said he was “devastated” and there was “absolutely no excuse” for not making the top four.

Klopp had already resigned himself to not playing Champions League next season and admits he even thought fifth place was out of reach prior to their current 10-match unbeaten run, which includes seven victories.

“It was a just a normal description of his situation, of his feeling, and in that moment directly after the game he’s right, it’s not the moment to immediately send any optimistic messages,” said Klopp.

“But I saw him now in the canteen and he was smiling. I don’t know for which reason as I didn’t ask him, but he is not in a bad mood. That’s it.

“We didn’t deliver what everybody wanted or expected but but we are still really united, that’s the good thing about it.

“The dressing room is not in a bad mood. We have learned to deal with the situation. We didn’t get divided in one moment between manager and team, which is super helpful.

“For a long time and it was clear from a specific point on it would not be a historically good season. We made mistakes, we couldn’t deliver often enough and were not consistent enough.

“We didn’t point fingers at each other. That’s all good. If you don’t qualify for the Champions League, the best place you can possibly end up is fifth, so that’s what we did.

“If you’d have asked me 10 games ago if that was possible, I’d have said no. That the boys did that is really good but it’s not perfect.

“We didn’t end up fifth because of the last 10 games, we ended up there because of the lack of consistency before that.”

Failure to qualify for the Champions League is set to cost Liverpool at least £50million next season but there may be implications in the shorter term as UEFA’s second-tier competition is likely to be less attractive to leading players.

The club have already pulled out of the running for primary target Jude Bellingham after the asking price for the Borussia Dortmund midfielder became prohibitive and reports this week suggested Chelsea midfielder Mason Mount’s preferred destination is Old Trafford.

Klopp is keen to get his business done early and is hopeful finishing fifth will not put a spanner in the works of their planning.

“I don’t think so but we will see. That is obviously possible, it’s always possible things don’t go as quick as you want. It’s not only possible, it is probably likely,” he added ahead of Sunday’s final match of the season at Southampton.

“The better the players you want the lesser is the desire of the other club to let him go and that’s exactly what we are prepared for.

“But it’s a long window and a long pre-season and a long break in-between so we have time. If we get in players tomorrow or in six or seven weeks it is not a game-changer for me to be honest.

“In an ideal world they all sign tomorrow and I can tell them when to be and we can start giving them the plans for the summer break but that will not likely happen likely.”

Russell Martin is poised to become Southampton’s new head coach on a three-year deal.

The former Scotland international is expected to seal the move on Wednesday afternoon, the PA news agency understands.

He will join from Swansea as the Saints move quickly to prepare for life in the Championship.

Martin verbally agreed to take over at St Mary’s over the weekend but the clubs remained in discussions over compensation.

Martin guided Swansea to 10th in the Championship last season despite having a bottom-four budget and the youngest squad in the division.

He has been praised for his style and Southampton will be hoping the 37-year-old can guide them back to the Premier League at the first attempt.

They will finish bottom of the Premier League after a disastrous season which has seen them use three managers.

Nathan Jones replaced Ralph Hasenhuttl in November but lasted just 14 games, winning one, and was sacked in February. Ruben Selles took charge for the final months of the campaign but was unable to keep Saints up.

On Monday, chief executive Martin Semmens stepped down from his role following relegation having been in the post since 2019.

The Saints have also confirmed Selles will leave the end of the season after talks.

A statement read: “Southampton Football Club can confirm that it has held conversations with Men’s First Team Manager, Ruben Selles, and decided that his contract will not be renewed when it expires at the end of the season.

“The club wants to place on record its thanks to Ruben for taking on the managerial position at a difficult time for the club and for giving his all as we attempted to stay in the Premier League.

“Ruben will take charge of the team for the final game against Liverpool on Sunday at St Mary’s. We wish him all the best for his future career.”

Southampton’s owners have announced a shake-up at board level in the wake of relegation from the Premier League.

Martin Semmens has left his role as CEO, with Sport Republic – the majority shareholder at St Mary’s – taking full operational control of the club.

Serbian businessman Dragan Solak has been appointed chairman of Sport Republic but Rasmus Ankersen will continue as CEO of the company and Henrik Kraft stays on as club chairman.

Saints are still looking for a new manager, with Swansea boss Russell Martin reported to be the frontrunner.

A statement read: “These are the first of many changes that we will be making to ensure the success of the club.

“Our incoming director of football, Jason Wilcox, will lead a review of the football department and we will announce the club’s leadership team for next season in the coming weeks.

“By taking these steps now, we are laying the groundwork for our goal of returning Southampton FC to the Premier League as soon as possible.”

Roberto De Zerbi told Brighton supporters to get their passports ready but warned the club must continue improving ahead of their maiden European campaign next season.

Evan Ferguson netted twice in the first half of Albion’s 3-1 victory over Southampton in front of a sold-out Amex Stadium, where Pascal Gross restored the two-goal advantage following Mohamed Elyounoussi’s header for the relegated Saints.

The three points assured De Zerbi’s side would not finish lower than seventh, in the Europa Conference League spot, though a sixth-place finish and a Europa League berth are all but mathematically guaranteed.

“Today is difficult for me because with my English I can’t explain my emotion,” said the Italian manger, who succeeded Graham Potter in September.

“I think we deserve this. The club, the players, me, my staff, and the fans, they have to organise their passports to travel in Europe next year because we have to grow together.”

De Zerbi, who last week was shortlisted for the Premier League’s manager of the season award, was increasingly animated on the touchline throughout Sunday’s contest, which was made more interesting when Elyounoussi nodded past Jason Steele after 58 minutes.

It felt everyone in the stands held a single collective breath soon after when Theo Walcott lifted the ball over the Albion keeper but the potential Saints equaliser was chalked off for offside.

Relief made way for elation when Gross fired in the hosts’ third from the edge of the area to put the game away.

But De Zerbi warned booking tickets to Europe is just the beginning of a new era for Brighton, who now must ensure they have the squad to compete in four competitions next term.

He said: “I think the history of the Premier League explains. It can happen, you achieve Europe and the next year you can find yourself at the bottom of the table.

“Now is the crucial moment for the club. Not for Roberto, for the players, but for the club, because we have to keep this level. We have to build a squad to improve our level because I think (chairman) Tony (Bloom) and the club they don’t want to lose this level.

“And to not lose this level we have to work harder in this transfer market, not only in the transfer market but to organise better and better and better because the victory can be dangerous.

“If you celebrate the victory it’s right, it’s normal, but you have to improve. You have to work harder because you can lose the level.”

De Zerbi admitted that at one point his high-flying Seagulls had set an internal goal of qualifying for the Champions League, adding: “I always think it is good for the players to fix the big target.

“We have improved in mentality, we have improved in confidence, we had a target and we still have a target. We have to get another point to play in Europa League.”

Anything below sixth for the Seagulls looks highly unlikely, with Albion enjoying a considerable advantage on goal difference and a game in hand on seventh-placed Villa, their final opponents of the campaign.

Southampton were already relegated before Saturday’s contest.

Ruben Selles’ contract is set to expire after the season, but he insisted that as far as he was aware reports about the potential appointment of Swansea boss Russell Martin as his successor were unsubstantiated.

The Saints boss added: “About my future, again I’m not worried about my future.

“I know that my contract expires at the end of the season and what the club decides, it’s going to be the club’s decision.

“It’s not my decision, I cannot control it, so I cannot spend time on that.”

Brighton secured European football for the first time and all but ensured it will be in the Europa League after Evan Ferguson’s brace helped them to a 3-1 home victory over relegated Southampton.

The 18-year-old inked his name in Albion’s history books with a brace before the break to edge his side towards their first continental berth.

Mohamed Elyounoussi made things interesting when he headed home to narrow the deficit in the second half, which also saw VAR chalk off a potential Saints equaliser before Pascal Gross put the game away.

Sixth-placed Brighton, who have a game in hand, could still finish level on points with Aston Villa below them, but their final-day opponents would have to overcome a near-impossible goal difference to finish above the Seagulls and clinch the Europa League spot.

The big occasion was marked by the appearance of a band from North Carolina State University who lifted nervous spirits in the sold-out stands with a rousing rendition of Sweet Caroline from trumpets and sousaphones.

Kaoru Mitoma sent a shot just wide of the right post in the eighth minute after a slightly shaky start for the hosts, who saw Pervis Estupinan’s attempt from distance easily handled by Saints goalkeeper Alex McCarthy.

Theo Walcott could have handed Southampton the lead when, unmarked, he collected a cross from Carlos Alcaraz but somehow sent his effort wide.

Closer still was Mitoma’s second opportunity, a lucky break when Jan Bednarek stumbled to set him free inside the six-yard box but the Seagull squandered the golden chance as he pinged it low off the post.

Soon, however, Brighton took the lead through 18-year-old Ferguson, who collected Alexis Mac Allister’s pass at the edge of the area and fired home his fifth Premier League goal of the campaign with a low strike that went straight through McCarthy.

Ferguson’s second was the result of some fine work from Mitoma to challenge Romeo Lavia for the ball at the halfway line, with officials dismissing the midfielder’s protests as he tumbled to the ground.

Mitoma scrambled down the left before teeing up the onrushing Irishman, who took his tally to 10 across all competitions this season with a finish in the bottom left corner.

The Japan international nearly added another in stoppage time but the two-goal advantage stood at the break.

Gross rolled a weak effort at Alex McCarthy to start the second half, which started more brightly for the visitors as they increasingly encroached on Brighton’s territory.

And they pulled one back in the 58th minute when Elyounoussi headed James Ward-Prowse’s corner.

Suddenly, it seemed like everything was unravelling for Albion.

Ward-Prowse played through Theo Walcott who lifted the ball over Jason Steele, but the home support released a collective breath after the potential equaliser was chalked off after a VAR check.

Moments later Gross extended the hosts’ advantage, picking up the ball – which had bounced in his direction from an aerial challenge – and took his time before firing in his 26th Premier League goal for Brighton, drawing him level with Glenn Murray and Neal Maupay for the club record.

Brighton, and an increasingly animated Roberto De Zerbi, wanted more and had late chances through Mac Allister and Deniz Undav, but no Seagull was rueing missed chances when the final whistle blew after a nervy seven minutes of stoppage time.

Roberto De Zerbi insists Brighton deserve to qualify for European football next season as a result of their efforts over the current campaign.

The Seagulls will head into Sunday’s Premier League clash with relegated Southampton at the Amex Stadium knowing two wins from their final three games – they host champions elect Manchester City next Wednesday before bringing the curtain down with a testing final-day trip to Aston Villa – would secure a Europa League berth.

It would be a first qualification for continental football for the south coast outfit and De Zerbi wants his players to write themselves into the club’s history.

Asked if he would regard this season as a success whatever happens over the next week or so, the Italian said: “Good question, but I prefer to answer you at the end of the season.

“ I am really proud for this season, but we want to write our own history of our club for our fans, for ourselves.

“I think we deserve to qualify for the Europa League. We won against Chelsea two times, we won against Manchester United two times, we won at Arsenal’s stadium, beat Liverpool and I think we are deserving to qualify for Europe.

“It is very difficult. The games are not one per week, they are very close, but we have to adapt, to react with motivation, with energy, with the head.”

Brighton head into the weekend sixth in the table, a point clear of Tottenham and Aston Villa with a game in hand on both.

Their outside hopes of threatening the top four were dealt a blow on Thursday evening when they were beaten 4-1 at Newcastle, who cemented themselves in third place as a result.

It was a second defeat in three games – they were surprisingly trounced 5-1 at home by Everton in between victories over Manchester United and Arsenal – but with Levi Colwill expected to return to the squad after being rested on Tyneside and Alexis Mac Allister, Julio Enciso and Evan Ferguson having been used only as substitutes, De Zerbi is expecting a response.

He said: “I think it will another tough game, but the characteristics, the quality of Newcastle are different. We will play in our stadium with our fans and we are able to win.”

Ruben Selles says Southampton still have pride to play for as they see out the Premier League season as a relegated club.

The Saints’ demotion to the Championship was confirmed last week, which means there is nothing riding on this Sunday’s visit to Brighton or next week’s final game against Liverpool.

But the Spaniard, who is insistent that he wants to be the man to try and lead the Saints back into the top flight, says his side still have to be professional.

“It doesn’t matter what sport you practise, the first thing is that you play for yourself and train for yourself and keep fit for yourself and you put yourself into the team, into a group of players that want to do things,” Selles said.

“The first meeting (after relegation) was very simple. It’s nothing new but the fact we can’t get anything from the table, it makes those things a little bit more important than ever because you need to play for yourself.

“When you think about that and playing for the club, the fans that will go and support us on Sunday and against Liverpool.”

The trip to the Amex represents a difficult one for the Saints, whose hosts are vying for European qualification.

They have excelled following Roberto De Zerbi’s appointment earlier this season and Selles says his Italian counterpart is breaking the mould.

“Brighton has a really good season, first with Graham Potter and now De Zerbi, they play attractive football and you can recognise what they do in every single game they play,” he said.

“They are performing really well in the Premier League and if you do that it’s because something has been building up for a long time. I am respectful of Roberto because he is a great coach and you can see it every time his team play.

“I know Roberto from the time in Sassuolo so I know what he can do and from Shakhtar Donetsk. He played amazing football so I am not surprised he can take his style and play it in the Premier League.

“The football in possession he practises is a really good one, it’s a little bit different, it’s usually the big teams that play with that kind of model but Roberto has shown you can do it in a different kind of environment.”

Southampton manager Ruben Selles has said he will only stay at the club if he is appointed the permanent manager.

Selles has been in charge since Nathan Jones’ sacking in February but could not steer the Saints away from relegation from the Premier League.

The Spaniard, who was appointed until the end of the season, is keen to get the role on the permanent basis and lead them in the Championship next term, but does not want to work under a new manager.

“The first question of if I want to stay as a coach if I am not the manager…absolutely not,” he said ahead of Sunday’s visit to Brighton.

“If someone has a doubt you can put it there and if they don’t know through me they can read it in the media. I will try to make my career as a manager, here if it is possible and if not here then in another place.

“I don’t think it’s insensitive, it is what it is, if I don’t want people to talk about it I should win more football matches, I know the business, that’s how it is.

“We will talk with the club and make a review after the Liverpool game and that is what I am expecting. Then if the club wants to make any movement with or without me I expect them to communicate with me before being made public.”

The futures of a host of players are in doubt following relegation, with James Ward-Prowse and Kyle Walker-Peters among those most likely to leave in the summer.

Selles says that player departures are inevitable.

“It cannot be avoided that some of the players will be out of the club, especially with the conditions of relegation,” he added.

“You always know that in the transfer market the boys are going to be in and out, it can happen that some of the boys won’t be here next season. Some of those won’t be here, some of them will be, that’s football.”

Saints hope to have striker Che Adams back for the trip along the south coast but defenders Armel Bella-Kotchap (hamstring), Romain Perraud (ankle), Juan
Larios (thigh) and Mohammed Salisu (groin) will not play again this season.

Brighton boss Roberto De Zerbi is confident his players will be ready for a first European adventure if they manage to grasp the prize dangling before them.

The Seagulls suffered a setback on Thursday evening when they went down 4-1 at Newcastle in the battle of the Premier League’s top-six gatecrashers.

However, they return to action against relegated Southampton on Sunday knowing wins in two of their last three games – against the Saints, champions elect Manchester City and Aston Villa – will secure a place in the top six and the rewards that would bring.

Reflecting on a bruising evening on Tyneside, De Zerbi said: “We are not used to playing three games in a week and we suffered a lot.

“There are many players – for example Moises Caicedo, Pervis [Estupinan] in the first half – they didn’t play well, but I love them. They have to learn to play two games in four days.

“Next year we will be better, we will be ready to play every day.”

The defeat at St James’ Park came in Brighton’s fourth game in 15 days, a run which includes famous victories over Manchester United and Arsenal, but also a 5-1 home drubbing by Everton.

De Zerbi felt he had no option but to leave on-loan Chelsea defender Levi Colwill out of the matchday squad in the north east with Alexis Mac Allister, Julio Enciso and Evan Ferguson starting on the bench.

With injuries biting deep into his squad – he was also without Solly March, Adam Lallana, Adam Webster, Joel Veltman, Jakub Moder, Jeremy Sarmiento, Enock Mwepu and Tariq Lamptey – the Italian admitted he had been presented with a selection headache.

However, he added: “Yes, but we have to be strong in a difficult period, a tough period. I don’t like making any excuses, but we have eight, nine, I don’t know, I don’t remember how many injuries we have now.

“We are playing four games in 12 days. The first XI today, Colwill wasn’t available to play, Mac Allister can’t play 90 minutes today and 90 minutes on Sunday, Welbeck, Buonanotte, Gilmour and Undav the same.”

De Zerbi expects to have 20-year-old Colwill, who was rested at Newcastle as a result of fatigue, back in the fold for Sunday’s game.

Kyle Walker-Peters believes instability caused by an influx of new signings contributed significantly to relegated Southampton’s season of struggle.

Saints have spent the majority of a dismal campaign in the Premier League drop zone and were finally condemned to the Sky Bet Championship by Saturday’s 2-0 loss to Fulham.

The division’s bottom side recruited 15 players across the last two transfer windows, while current boss Ruben Selles is the third man in charge this term following the sackings of Ralph Hasenhuttl and Nathan Jones.

England defender Walker-Peters admits individuals have under-performed but feels background upheaval has not helped the club’s predicament.

“No it hasn’t,” said the 26-year-old. “Being 100 per cent honest, that has been really tough for everyone.

“When I first came here it was a smaller squad, a tight-knit squad and sometimes when there is a lot of change it makes things hard.

“On the pitch we haven’t been good enough, we haven’t done our jobs well enough and ultimately that is why we’re getting relegated.”

Defeat to the Cottagers was Southampton’s 24th in the top flight during a dismal season which has brought just six wins and only 31 goals, with 66 conceded.

Victories over Chelsea and Leicester in Selles’ first three games after replacing Jones sparked hope of survival but were followed by a paltry three points from the next 33 available.

“We haven’t scored enough goals, we haven’t stopped enough goals and ultimately if you’re not good enough in both boxes then it’s hard to win games,” said Walker-Peters.

“That has been the story of our season.”

Dropping into the Championship is likely to spark a player exodus at St Mary’s, with Walker-Peters one of those expected to attract interest.

The full-back, who made his international debut last year, was tight-lipped about his own future ahead of matches against Brighton and Liverpool.

He anticipates the club will attempt to build around the raft of young talent they are able to retain as they prepare for life in the second tier.

“There are still two more games so that is my main focus – try and make those results positive and see what happens after there,” he said.

“I’m not looking too much into my future yet.

“I always see myself in a Southampton shirt, I love the club. I enjoy being here so we’ll see what happens.”

Asked how the club bounce back, he replied: “It is not for me to say, the club have their own ideas and they will want to bounce back asap.

“They’ll try and keep everyone they can and everyone they want to keep and try and bounce back from there.”

Fulham require three points from games against Crystal Palace and Manchester United to surpass the club’s record Premier League tally of 53 following success on the south coast.

Cottagers midfielder Harrison Reed, who began his career at Southampton, said: “That is massive for us as a group of players and the staff.

“That is what we are aiming for, and pushing each day to achieve that.

“We have planned this season and we have put our stamp on it from the first game really.

“It’s nice to be in the position we are, winning games of football and with the fans behind us.”

Asked about his former club, Reed, who suffered relegation with Fulham in 2021, said: “It’s been a tough season. We’ve been there.

“You need to get your head down and focus and win some football matches next year and I am sure they will come back stronger.”

Captain James Ward-Prowse has “full confidence” Southampton can make a swift return to the Premier League following the pain of relegation.

Saints’ fate was sealed by Saturday’s listless 2-0 defeat to Fulham – a club-record 24th league loss in a single season.

England midfielder Ward-Prowse has been with Southampton since the age of eight but is already being linked with a summer move away from St Mary’s.

The 28-year-old, who insists he is “not thinking too far ahead” regarding his own future, is optimistic Saints will bounce back from surrendering the top-flight status they have held since 2012.

“(I’ve) full confidence, I think the club’s been there and done it,” he told Southampton’s website.

“The squad that we’ve got now is incredibly young and they’ve got a lot to learn.

“They will have learnt a lot from this year and next year I’m sure the club will be doing everything they can to be back in the Premier League.”

Southampton were precariously placed for much of a miserable campaign, having continually occupied the bottom three since early November.

Second-half goals from Fulham pair Carlos Vinicius and Aleksandar Mitrovic condemned Ruben Selles’ side to the drop with two games to spare.

Spaniard Selles was the team’s third manager this term following the sackings of Ralph Hasenhuttl and Nathan Jones.

Ward-Prowse concedes warning signs were present for a long time and admits Saints ultimately went down to the Sky Bet Championship with a whimper.

“It’s something, in all honesty, we’ve been fearing for a little while,” he said.

“Over the last couple of years we’ve not been performing at the level I believe we should be and I think this season’s caught up with us.

“There’s a way to lose games, there’s a way to maybe fail in sport and I think the way we’ve done it this year, that’s the disappointing way.

“I don’t feel we’ve really gone down with a fight and given everything we can.

“I feel for the fans because they don’t deserve to see what we’ve produced this season and that’s the sad thing.”

Victory for Fulham was a club-record 15th in a Premier League season to tighten their grip on a top-half spot.

Winger Harry Wilson, who was involved in each of the Cottagers’ goals on the south coast, hopes to increase the impressive points haul of 51 going into a home game against Crystal Palace and a trip to Manchester United.

“It’s not something I was aware of but it’s something we’ve earned throughout the season,” he said of the record.

“We’ve shown that we can win different ways, so to get 15 wins and the record is great.

“We’ll definitely enjoy them (the final two games) but we also know there’s a lot to play for and we want to make sure we get two wins.”

Substitute Mitrovic returned from his eight-match ban with a bang by heading home seven minutes after replacing fellow goalscorer Vinicius.

The Serbia striker was punished for grabbing referee Chris Kavanagh during his side’s 3-1 FA Cup loss at Old Trafford in March.

Wilson is already eyeing revenge against United on the final weekend following the heated cup exit in which Mitrovic, Willian and manager Marco Silva were sent off.

“We were really good for 70 minutes and we all know what happened,” he said of that game.

“We feel like we kind of owe them one in a way because we felt on that day we maybe should have left with something.”

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