Stop­ping Saints City’s job

High-fly­ing Southamp­ton ready for bat­tle while Sun­der­land hope to halt ram­pant Blues

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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 English Premier League and split the coun­try’s es­tab­lished pow­ers.

The re­sults of Southamp­ton’s next three games could show whether they have the abil­ity to hang around for the long haul.

The team man­aged by for­mer Nether­lands de­fender Ron­ald Koe­man host 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 next month.

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 their man­ager Mauri­cio Po­chet­tino and many of its best play­ers in the off-sea­son, 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 this week.

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 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 they are a thor­ough­bred.

The London club is still un­beaten in the league head­ing into an away match at Sun­der­land to­mor­row 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.

It was United’s first win against a top team this sea­son and lifted the 20-time English cham­pi­ons back into the top four, where they are des­per­ate to stay to get back in the lu­cra­tive Cham­pi­ons League.

Van Gaal’s prob­lems in de­fence haven’t eased ahead of to­mor­row’s home match against Hull, though, with left-back Luke Shaw join­ing a lengthy list by hurt­ing his an­kle against Arse­nal.

De­fend­ers Da­ley Blind, Mar­cos Rojo, Rafael da Silva, Phil Jones and Jonny Evans have all missed re­cent games for United.

PIC­TURE: GETTY IMAGES

MAN OF THE MO­MENT: Manch­ester City striker Ser­gio Aguero helped save his team’s Cham­pi­ons League cam­paign with a stun­ning hat-trick against Bay­ern Mu­nich this week. He has been key in keep­ing City’s ti­tle chal­lenge alive with his vi­tal goals this sea­son.

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