By Ossian Shine
LONDON (Reuters) - A bruised Southampton squad licked their wounds on Monday after narrowly losing a pulsating League Cup final to Manchester United, but can draw much consolation from the confirmation that in Manolo Gabbiadini they have unearthed a goal-scoring diamond.
The Italian, signed from Napoli last month, scored twice in Sunday's Wembley showpiece to draw the Saints level, only for Zlatan Ibrahimovic to score the winner with the match headed to extra-time.
Indeed Gabbiadini can count himself unlucky not to have notched a hat-trick on his Wembley debut, after television replays showed his 15th minute strike should not have been ruled out for offside.
Saints manager Claude Puel pulled no punches afterwards in praise of his new hit-man. "He scored three goals and was the best player of the final," said the Frenchman.
"He was better than Ibrahimovic. Both players know how important it is to score goals. He's now scored five goals in three games, it should be six of course, and it's fantastic for him and for the team."
Puel was not alone in praising the slender 25-year-old, with United boss Jose Mourinho also full of admiration, describing Gabbiadini's second goal as "phenomenal".
That strike, where he reacted first to beat Chris Smalling and fire past David de Gea, capped a sizzling performance, during which they outplayed United for huge chunks of the game.
The Wembley showing was in stark contrast to some of their lukewarm performances in the league this season, and the players say they will use this experience to kickstart their campaign.
"We showed our character and determination," midfielder James Ward-Prowse said. "Everyone can be proud, we can come away with our heads held high.
"This has given us an incentive to kick our season on."
Gabbiadini and his almost preternatural nose for a goal is sure to feature strongly if Saints are to climb the Premier League table from their current position of 13th.
"He is helping us to be more clinical," Puel said, with maximum understatement. "It's important for the team to keep this spirit, with the same attitude.
"We need to make sure that we take our chances in the Premier League now."
The Saints get a chance to put their plans in action on Saturday when they visit 12th-placed Watford.
(Editing by Alison Williams)