Southampton: Forget The Table, We're Perfectly Set To Unsettle City
As the Premier League moves towards its ineluctably tense conclusion, you could be forgiven for thinking that Southampton’s players had every excuse to switch off a smidgen and start thinking about which footballer’s biography to take on holiday.
European football is out of reach and relegation is a distant spectre, banished by some fine football and a sense of excitement and purpose buzzing around St. Mary’s. Southampton, if the narrative of the league table is your own guide to the season’s unfolding, have little left to play for except for finishing ahead of Newcastle in a little eighth/ninth place mini-league. Newcastle, comfortably shellacked in front of a raucous home crowd on the south coast last weekend, and lacking the at times too charismatic input of their manager Alan Pardew, seem bereft of confidence and unlikely to overhaul the Saints.
The narrative of the table, though, while it might not lie, can cast a disingenuous shadow over proceedings. Many of Southampton’s squad could well be packing a Portuguese phrasebook rather than the latest pale imitation of I Am Zlatan Ibrahimovic, with four English players in genuine contention for a squad place, and Adam Lallana also getting real backing for a starting spot. Added to that, the superb defensive performances of Dejan Lovren and José Fonte, upon which Southampton’s successes this season have been built, make it certain that Lovren will be called up and a possibility, albeit an unlikely one, that his centre-half partner could join him. In effect, over half the starting eleven who will take the field against Manchester City at the Etihad are playing for World Cup squad places, with only Lovren and Lallana assured of making the trip to Brazil.
That is a significant incentive for any player, especially ones like Shaw and Fonte. Shaw is facing a stiff challenge in the form of Ashley Cole and Leighton Baines, and 2014 may be too soon for him, but the opportunity is there to assert his claim to a squad place and who knows what injuries might occur before the tournament. Fonte has been in outstanding form this season and though representing Portugal at youth level, has never been capped, despite occasion calls in his behalf for recognition. Rickie Lambert will be seeking to forestall any Carroll-orientated speculation with his typical combination of graft and predation, and Rodriguez, who for me has been one of the most improved players in the Premier League this season, has a chance to show he can shine against top class opposition.
Because, let’s be honest, Manchester City are that.
The 3-0 dismissal of their inept cross-town rivals was completed against a backdrop of turmoil and underachievement by the men in red, but it still had to be done. City are many people’s shout for the title too, especially after the freak Chelsea result. But Southampton are now in a place where they can and do want to challenge the bigger, better sides. Some of the squad will have in the back of the minds that a few of their more august colleagues might be beckoned to in the transfer window and may want to show just how good Southampton could be regularly if they stayed. The club has a tremendous sense of loyalty around it, as evinced by players like Lallana who stayed during relegation and insolvency, and the feeling that, if Pochettino stays, the club can reach new heights. Southampton’s high tempo pressing game, winning the ball in the opposition’s half and generally being a bloody pain in the arse for them, is ideally suited to unsettle teams like City, as shown by the scintillating 1-1 draw earlier in the season. Saturday’s game could be a humdinger.
Forget what the table says. Southampton’s players, and the club itself, have a lot still to play for, and Manchester City might just regret that when the final whistle goes.
Follow Alex on Twitter, @putnielsingoal