Sunday test for Saints
MANCHESTER, England (AP):
Widely tipped as possible relegation contenders following their summer of upheaval, Southampton have stunned English football by winning eight of their first 12 games to sit in second place in the Premier League and split the country’s established powers.
The results of Southampton’s next three games could show whether it has the ability to hang around for the long haul.
The team, managed by former Netherlands defender Ronald Koeman, hosts champions Manchester City on Sunday to kick off a challenging run of fixtures that sees them play Arsenal and Manchester United in the next two rounds, and then Everton and Chelsea later in December.
If the south-coast club comes through that tough schedule boasting some victories and with their self-belief intact, the likes of Liverpool, Tottenham, United and Arsenal – teams struggling for form in the race for the Champions League places – may start to worry.
“I think it’s possible,” a bullish Koeman said of Southampton’s chances of a top-four finish, “because I don’t see a lot of teams that are better than Southampton.”
Southampton lost manager Mauricio Pochettino and many of their best players in the offseason, including Adam Lallana, Rickie Lambert and Dejan Lovren to Liverpool and Luke Shaw to United, but their replacements have taken no time to fit in. Players like winger Dusan Tadic, and striker Graziano Pelle have been among the revelations of the season so far and Koeman already has the air of a Premier League veteran in just his first year in English football.
Southampton are six points behind unbeaten Chelsea, but two clear of City, seven ahead of United, and already have 12 more than sputtering Liverpool.
If it wasn’t for the brilliant form of Sergio Aguero, Man City would not be in a position where they have the chance to move second in the standings, with a win at St Mary’s stadium this weekend.
The Argentina striker took his goal tally in all competitions this season to 17 in 18 games by scoring a hat-trick – including two late strikes – in City’s 3-2 win over Bayern Munich in the Champions League on Tuesday.
With Yaya Toure a shadow of last season and City’s defence looking porous, Aguero’s goals are carrying the champions.
“He is unstoppable,” City midfielder Samir Nasri said. “At the moment, he is one of the best players in the world. Apart from Cristiano Ronaldo, who is on another planet, he is up there with (Lionel) Messi and (Luis) Suarez.”
If Chelsea was the “little horse” in last season’s title race, in the words of coach José Mourinho, this season, it is a thoroughbred.
The London club is still unbeaten in the league, heading into an away match at Sunderland on Saturday, with a 5-0 thrashing of Schalke in the Champions League, the latest show of strength from Chelsea.
“Everything the players do is with big focus and ambition, but at the same time with this component, which is something new in Chelsea football – this happiness, this flair, this beauty,” Mourinho said.
Man United’s 2-1 victory at Arsenal last weekend was a signature result for Louis van Gaal in his tempestuous first season in charge at Old Trafford.