CLAUDE Puel must prove in the final throes of this season that he is not afraid to go tooth and nail with the Premier League’s top guns.
Although Puel has beaten Liverpool and Arsenal in the EFL Cup run this term, in league fixtures he has not tasted the same success, failing to lead Saints to victory against any of the current top six in eight attempts.
They were most recently beaten 3-0 by third-placed Manchester City at St Mary’s last weekend.
But now the St Mary’s chief has the chance to change all that, with Saints facing four of the high-fliers in their final seven games of the season.
For Saints, this run will be an opportunity to not only return to a place where the top sides know they aren’t in for guaranteed points against them, but also have a major say in the final standings.
Next Tuesday, Puel’s men travel to leaders Chelsea, knowing that to claim another victory at Stamford Bridge, in the spirit of last season’s 3-1 triumph, would blow the title race wide open.
As things stand, Antonio Conte’s side are four points ahead of second-placed Tottenham.
But Saints could chuck an enormous spanner into the Blues’ works if they were to claim any points in London.
If Saints can shake-off the nerves, which Puel admitted they were suffering from in their 3-0 defeat to Manchester City, then they might be able to produce a performance of old.
Puel’s boys do have it in them, as they proved in the EFL Cup run, but have not shown that they are up for it so much in the league yet.
Another of last season’s victims, Liverpool, who were beaten 3-2 in sensational fashion at St Mary’s in 2015/16, await on Sunday, May 7.
Saints were full of bravery on that famous night in January, when they claimed a 1-0 win at Anfield in the EFL Cup, and Maya Yoshida has urged his team-mates to show that again in this final run-in.
“We have to play with more bravery because we can play much better [than against Manchester City],” Yoshida said.
“We have to believe in ourselves and tactically we have to play for each-other, defensively and offensively.”
Saints drew 0-0 with the Reds at St Mary’s in November and later beat them twice across the two-legged EFL Cup semi-final.
Jurgen Klopp’s third-placed side will be eager to keep hold of one of the coveted Champions League spots when Saints visit Anfield.
And Arsenal, who Saints defeated 4-0 last season in a Boxing Day bashing, are desperate to break back into the top four.
They come to the south coast on May 10.
Puel’s team will then look for revenge for their EFL Cup final defeat, when they play Manchester United, who beat them 3-2 at Wembley, at St Mary’s on May 17 in the penultimate game of the season.
Jose Mourinho’s fifth-placed outfit will be eager to keep the pressure on the Champions League spots, and this game could well be decisive in that.
It’s now Puel’s chance to rid his team of the nerves and finally threaten the big teams and upset the apple cart.
Saints’ record versus the top six this season:
- Manchester United 2-0 L
- Arsenal 2-1 L
- Manchester City 1-1 D
- Chelsea 0-2 L
- Liverpool 0-0 D
- Tottenham 1-4 L
- Tottenham 2-1 L
- Manchester City 0-3 L
Remaining fixtures versus top six:
- April 25 - Chelsea A
- May 7 - Liverpool A
- May 10 - Arsenal H
- May 17 - Man United H