Saturday February 11th 15.00
In the interests of full disclosure, this column should point out that it has a soft/blind spot when it comes to Southampton. This is largely due to the manner in which they deal with having their best players and managers stripped from them on a regular basis; which is to say that they comport themselves in a mature and considered manner, far removed from the hyperbolae and nonsense that most other clubs engage in. Having said all that….
Eyes on the prize with the cart before the horse
Since beating Liverpool in the second leg of the League Cup semi-final at the tail end of February, they have lost three games on the trot with the consensus being that none of the players want to jeopardise their chances of playing in the final by picking up an unnecessary injury between then and now. Such a mindset would be well and good if it were the FA Cup final they were playing in as it takes place toward the season’s end when BPL safety may have been assured but, as it stands, they are just six points ahead of the bottom six (two points separate the teams in 15th and 20th) and, going by current form, dropping fast.
Eye of the Tiger Black Cats
Sunderland, by contrast, have found some fight from somewhere. Whilst they are currently right at the bottom of the pile, their recent form has suggested that a corner may have been turned. A very creditable draw against Tottenham Hotspur was followed by a 4-0 demolition away to Crystal Palace. Granted, Palace are having a rough time of things presently but it still takes the necessary skills to take advantage of such teams and Sunderland were clinical in that regard. Jermain Defoe has 14 goals to his name this season (only four players have scored more) and is hungry for more.
That’s not good news for Southampton as, in the absence of Virgil van Dijk through injury and Jose Fonte following his transfer to West Ham, their defence has been breached to the tune of 10 goals conceded in their last three games. The addition of Manolo Gabbiadini last month has certainly added some much looked for quality up front (check out his rocket of a goal in their loss to West Ham) but that will count for little if they can’t keep a clean sheet or close to it.
Southampton would balk at the suggestion that their players are phoning it in in anticipation of the upcoming final but recent results suggest otherwise. They will require a massive swing in attitude and application if they have any hope of meeting Sunderland’s new-found intensity head on. With Sunderland at home, in front of some of the most passionate fans in the BPL (not a high bar, admittedly), they will fancy their chance to get another three points. Giving that Bet365 offering 3/1 for a Sunderland win, this column fancies them to likewise, too.