FRIDAY’S home game against Middlesbrough marks Southampton's return to Championship action.

Saints have not played since their 4-2 win over Sunderland on March 9. It will have been 20 days since that game by the time kickoff rolls around.

Southampton need to ensure a positive performance and result if they are to catch the teams above them in the promotion hunt.

Here are five key talking points ahead of the clash at St Mary’s…

Start of the promotion run-in

Friday's game against Michael Carrick's Middlesbrough is the first of 10 games across a window of just 36 days.

With Saints currently off the pace in the promotion race, they can ill afford to lose any of those 10 games if they are to make it to the Premier League.

They start off with a home fixture against a Boro side who are hoping to make it into the playoffs before the season draws to a close.

Seeking revenge

Middlesbrough were 2-1 winners at the Riverside Stadium when these two sides met earlier this season thanks to a penalty from Jonny Howson.

Not only was that defeat Southampton's fourth straight loss, it also marked Boro's first win of the season.

Russell Martin and his players have not forgotten how disappointed they felt after that result and will look to put things right on Friday. 

Daily Echo: Kyle Walker-Peters return?

Martin has previously outlined that this game is the most likely return date for the injured Kyle Walker-Peters.

The two-time England international has been out since Southampton's 3-0 FA Cup defeat to Liverpool at Anfield.

Prior to his injury, Walker-Peters had played every minute of the Championship campaign - a clear sign of how important he is to the club.

When compared to other players in the Championship, he ranks in the 95.3 percentile for dribbles per 90 minutes (2.18) with a success rate of 68.3 per cent.

He also ranks in the 95.3 percentile for touches in the opposition box per 90 minutes with 3.79.

Both Walker-Peters and Ryan Fraser have been pictured back in training during the international break.

Improvement needed at the back

Southampton have conceded 18 goals in their last eight games - a record that falls far short of what is required for a team gunning for Premier League football.

In contrast, Leeds have conceded four goals in that time, Leicester have leaked 13 and Ipswich have allowed nine.

Across the whole season, Saints have conceded the 8th least goals per match in the division (1.3), meaning they have it within them to shut up shop.

It remains to be seen whether Martin will persist with his new defensive system, which sees Jack Stephens and Taylor Harwood-Bellis deployed in versatile roles designed to help build up play.

Daily Echo: Saints manager Russell Martin and defenders Taylor Harwood-Bellis and Jack Stephens

READ MORE: Southampton's Martin has one big problem ahead of Championship finale

Record on return from previous international breaks

Southampton have had a mixed bag of results across the three games directly after an international break this season.

The September break was followed by a crushing 4-1 loss to Leicester, they beat Hull 2-1 following the October camp and were held to a 1-1 draw by Huddersfield in November.

Training numbers are naturally depleted during the international window with key players jetting off with their national teams.

Martin may call upon players who have stayed at Staplewood rather than those who have been away in order to get some consistency from training to matchday.

However, that tactic would see them lose too many first-choice players, so perhaps a mixed selection is the best bet.