SAINTS today tackle a game they have to take totally seriously – or face some unhappy consequences.
Both chairman Nicola Cortese and manager Mauricio Pochettino are ambitious people who are desperate to see Saints qualify for European football.
Already this season one great chance to grab that, via the League Cup, has been wasted.
Saints paid the price for fielding a weakened side by losing to the Premier League’s bottom club, Sunderland, in the last 16 of the Capital One Cup.
The likes of Swansea and Birmingham have shown in recent seasons that one of the top flight’s less glamorous clubs can qualify for the Europea League via that competition.
Today comes another chance to qualify for Europe.
It could be argued, given the club’s current league position, the FA Cup presents the BEST chance.
Eleven points off the top five following the home loss to Chelsea on New Year’s Day, Saints have drifted out of contention for European football via their league position after a run of only one win in nine matches.
It seems certain that Saints will again field a weakened side for today’s third round tie at home to Championship high-fliers Burnley.
How much weakened we don’t yet know. But we can assume that most of the first team regulars who were involved in four Premier League games in the space of 11 days over the festive period might not start at St Mary’s. At Sunderland in the League Cup, Saints Jos Hooiveld, Maya Yoshida, Danny Fox, Gaston Ramirez and Tadanari Lee all started.
At the time hardly any of them had started a Premier League game all season, though that has since changed.
Youngster Harrison Reed was given his first start while another teenager, Sam Gallagher, came off the bench for his competitive debut.
All those seven players can expect to feature again today.
And in one sense, Saints would be right to play them.
You need to keep the fringe players as match fit as possible should they be needed in the league.
The Cups also provide the likes of Reed and Gallagher with decent game time without the pressure of the Premier League and associated riches that go with it.
We have to assume that Saints will play a similar side against Burnley that faced Sunderland.
Saints are not so big these days that they can afford to treat the FA Cup with the same indifference they treated the League Cup.
In fairness, they are certainly not alone in their thinking.
But I repeat what I wrote earlier in this piece – if the club’s hierarchy are desperate for European football, the FA Cup presents them with probably their best chance in 2013/14.
Aston Villa boss Paul Lambert this week gave a sad and brutal assessment of the fading status of the FA Cup in the modern football calendar.
Lambert said most of his fellow top-flight bosses would rather do without the competition completely.
“If they were being honest, they probably would do,” he told the Midlands media. Hopefully Pochettino doesn’t share Lambert’s views.
Hopefully Cortese doesn’t share them either.
Burnley aren’t a mid-table fourth division team, they are second in the Championship.
Saints go into this game on the back of one win in nine league games, so could do with a victory – for morale, if nothing else.
They cannot afford to take Burnley lightly, for defeat would be a massive blow to Saints.
Under Gordon Strachan, the club finished eighth in the Premier League and 2003 AND reached the FA Cup final. Yes, they had a bit of luck – a succession of home draws against lower division opponents from the fourth round onwards. But Strachan, a past FA Cup winner as a player, also took the competition seriously as a manager, fielding his best side in all rounds. As a result, Saints enjoyed a memorable day out for the final and won a place in the UEFA Cup.
That was only 11 years ago. Has the footballing landscape in this country changed that much that Pochettino is no longer capable of doing the same as Strachan did? We will find out the answer today.