MAYA Yoshida believes he is in a "big moment" in his career after finally feeling a sense of belonging at Saints.

It was just last year, after nearly four seasons at St Mary's, that the Japan international felt he had to improve to establish himself in the team.

Fast forward 12 months and the central defender is a valuable player for Saints, having captained the side in the 1-0 win at West Bromwich Albion and scored the winning goal against Crystal Palace in his last two outings.

"I have been waiting for this chance for a long time," he said. "Now I have to show everyone who I am.

"I'm showing it now, but if it's not enough I will understand and I must keep showing a good performance until the end of the season and even more, for the next two or three years."

After Jose Fonte's departure and Virgil van Dijk's long-term foot ligament injury, Yoshida and Jack Stephens stepped into the breach to become Saints' first choice centre-back partnership.

Even with former Barcelona and Juventus man Martin Caceres coming in as a free agent, the duo have kept their places, playing together at the heart of the team since January.

Yoshida has started 29 of Saints' 45 games in all competitions this season, and has been a permanent fixture during 2017.

In a superb period for the 28-year-old, he also skippered Japan and scored in their two World Cup qualifiers last month.

"It's a big moment in my career and there is many responsibilities behind me, which is really difficult, but appreciated as well," he said.

"Not every player can become captain for their own country and also a Premier League club, so I really appreciate everyone who has accepted me.

"The important thing is to keep building on my performances and keep moving on, not only for two or three games but until the end of the season.

"I have to move on and keep my shape as well, but physically and mentally I am in very good shape at the moment."

With captain Steven Davis out injured for the visit to The Hawthorns, Claude Puel handed the armband to Yoshida.

"It's a huge responsibility but it is a huge pride as well," he said. "It makes me really strong and be concentrated.

"That's why I feel really good and I'm enjoying my responsibility."

He is now aiming to establish himself at the heart of Saints' defence long term.

"I have done many things since I came to Southampton, have had many good managers and played with many good players, like Virgil [van Dijk], Jose [Fonte], [Dejan] Lovren, Toby [Alderweireld] and even Jack Stephens," he said.

"I'm 28 now and I believe I will improve more and more, especially at centre-back because I'm getting more experienced, calm and I'm physically very good now."

There were difficult times last season for Yoshida under Ronald Koeman, with two glaring errors in defeats to Manchester United and Manchester City as well as a difficult spell at right-back.

He said: "I really appreciated Koeman who tried to believe in me and even used me as a full-back, but I couldn't play there. That was really difficult.

"Now because we had many games in the Europa League I could play constantly and that's why my fitness is getting better.

"So once I got my chance after Jose [Fonte] went it was a big opportunity to show myself."

On his partnership with Stephens, Yoshida said: "Every game he improves. After each game we discuss with each-other what was good and what wasn't good.

"We try to raise each other up and I can learn many things from him and he can learn from me.

"We push each other and raise each other.

"We are building a very good relationship, I believe."

"He's a good guy and he's getting more experienced every day, every moment at Southampton," he added.

Yoshida is now aiming for a strong finish to the season.

"We've started to get back on track and start that winning way," he said. "Especially when we make clean sheets it means a lot for us.

"After we beat West Brom there's now just four points difference, so I want to finish the season above them."

"We still have big games against City this weekend, United, Liverpool, so it's going to be very tough," he continued.

"But if we finish eighth on the table this season it will be great, especially after the Europa Leauge and EFL Cup final.

"It would be a great season."