Francis Benali is hoping for his first Premiership start for almost three years tonight after his successful return to the first team on Saturday.

The 34-year-old Saints stalwart was given a huge ovation by Southampton fans when he lined up in the 1-1 FA Cup draw against Millwall, replacing the injured Wayne Bridge.

Bridge, who has torn a calf muscle and is likely to be out of action for three weeks, will see his run of 113 consecutive Premier League starts end tonight and it is highly likely than Benali will again be the man to replace him.

Saints travel to Sunderland's Stadium of Light looking for their third away league win of the campaign, and their previous two - at Aston Villa and at West Ham - both came in night matches.

Speaking of Saturday's game - his first competitive start since March 2000 - Benali said: "I thoroughly enjoyed it.

"After so long without a first-team game, it was great to be playing and to start my first senior game at the new stadium.

"I did not know for sure that I was playing until the Friday.

"The manager had a few options and it looked at one stage as though he might play Rory Delap there.

"I spoke to the gaffer during the week and told him that if he did pick me then I would not let him down.

"I was pleased to get the nod. As the only natural back-up for Bridgey in the club I would have been disappointed if I had not been picked but the manager had a difficult decision.

"It is one that has not had to be made for a long time because Bridgey has done so well and made the place his own.

"If he had left me out then I know it would have been for a reason.

"But I was so chuffed that he went with me and the reception I got from the fans meant an awful lot to me.

"It has been difficult keeping myself fit and ready just in case I was ever needed but the players and staff and fans have been fantastic to me.

"I am just so glad that we got that late equaliser so we did not lose and I hope I have done enough to stay in the side tonight."

Benali was in the thick of the action from the start, being forced to slide and clear off his own line in only the eighth minute.

It was typically committed stuff from the fans hero and he joked: "It was one of those where the ball could have gone off the wrong part of my foot and I could have been left with egg on my face.

"I was not sure at the time if it was even going in and it was only when I saw it on television that I realised just how close it was!"

Claus Lundekvam faces a late fitness test to see if he can recover from his rib injury in time to line-up against Sunderland tonight while Kevin Davies is again likely to start on the bench.

l Young Saints star Brian Howard has celebrated his 20th birthday with a call-up to the England Under-20 squad.

Howard, who turned 20 just five days ago, was named in England coach Les Reed's 18 man squad for their match against Germany at Reading's Madejski Stadium on February 6.

Also in the squad is Portsmouth midfielder Gary O'Neil