What is success? For those in the Premier League not in the thick of either the Champions League race or the relegation scrap, this is the time of year where you start to ask yourself the question. It’s a slightly subjective judgement, and that is particularly the case for Southampton.
At first glance, they’re already winners. Ronald Koeman‘s side sit in seventh place, one higher than the one in which they finished last season – and with little prospect of being usurped, as eighth-placed Swansea have seven points fewer than them.
The Saints also have a point more than their total from the whole of last season. When one factors in the loss of Mauricio Pochettino and players like Adam Lallana, Dejan Lovren, Luke Shaw and Rickie Lambert to name but four, it’s impressive stuff.
So why does it feel as if so much is riding on Southampton’s last four games of the Premier League season? Perhaps it’s the lack of tangible reward for their excellence in the last (just short of) two seasons, with Pochettino’s deprioritising of cup competitions last season an irritant to many fans.
Europa League football for next season does seem like a fitting prize – Southampton seem like a rare club who would actually welcome the adventure. It’s still realistic too, with sixth position guaranteeing Europe (incidentally, seventh will too if Arsenal go on to win the FA Cup).
Saints should really be in fifth place now, but somehow allowed Tottenham (currently sixth) to take a point on Saturday from a game which they largely controlled, and certainly created the better chances in. As it stands, they are still just a point behind Liverpool.
There will, however, be no gimmes in the closing quartet that the admirable Koeman and his men face. Next up are relegation-threatened Sunderland and Leicester away, with their fellow strugglers Aston Villa the final visitors to St Mary’s, before the last-day trip to Manchester City. City are formidable enough at home anyway, but look as if they will be forced to fight to the wire to secure the necessary top three finish to avoid an August Champions League qualifier.
Hence, perhaps, why Southampton are longer ([3.5]) than either Spurs ([3.4]) or Liverpool (a skinny [1.36]) to make a top five place theirs. All the four games to come promise to have a far higher intensity than the meeting with Spurs – or certainly more than a pretty limp opening half-hour, at least – so Koeman needs his players to be sharp.
Graziano Pelle is certainly that, with his brace against Pochettino’s current charges confirming that the Italy forward is firing again after going without a Premier League goal from December to the mid-April meeting with Hull. Yet Saints, for all the aesthetic pleasure that they’ve given us this season, have hardly been reliable of late.
Their super early-season form, undone by four straight league defeats in November and December, has never been fully recovered. Koeman’s team have not won two Premier League games in a row since the middle of January, when they took three points at Manchester United and Newcastle.
Those wins were, however, both on the road, which shows you how far Southampton’s ambition and quality can take them when they get it right. Even with the high stakes riding on Saturday’s trip to the north-east for Dick Advocaat’s Sunderland, you would expect those attributes to net them the three points, available at [2.04].
If there’s any justice, it will be the beginning of a sweep into Europe.