Southampton's ability to stay in the top four of the Premier League will be decided in the tough upcoming December fixtures list which gets busier and tougher. After a heartbreaking 0-3 loss at home to champions Manchester City on Sunday, the club faces another daunting test ahead when they take on Arsenal at the Emirates on Wednesday.
Sunday's fixture, which was touted to be a big action drama, ended up being a one -sided affair. The side’s lack of positional discipline after Emanuel Mangala was sent off, would not have pleased the manager at all.
Further, the loss of Morgan Schneiderlin at half-time because of a thigh injury proved a big blow. Schneiderlin has been the side's driving force this season and he could turn out to be a big miss.
The loyalists will hope it's a one match blip as the club will want to get back to winning ways and consolidate their position in the top four.
The December fixtures that present a stiff test for all teams, will be the biggest hurdle for Southampton to overcome as they are pitted against the big clubs in a series of matches.
Southampton play five of their seven matches against big teams up till New Year and the fitness level and rotation of players will prove crucial. So far they haven't suffered any major injuries and that has allowed Koeman to play a similar team throughout.
But December will highlight the bench strength of the side when they tackle more experienced opponents. With Jack Cork unavailable because of illness, Southampton were forced to move Toby Alderweireld into midfield against City, which served a reminder that their squad may not be big enough for a top-four challenge
After the trip to Arsenal, the Saints face Manchester United at home on Monday night and a slip could see them being overtaken by the duo in the table. They also have Burnley and Everton in between followed by three fixtures in 11 days that include Palace (26th), Chelsea (28th) and Arsenal on New Year's day.
For any team, it is a tough ask to play the top clubs back to back on two occasions. But the team needs to pick itself up quickly as Arsenal clash looms, and get back their composure back.
After a summer exodus of the club's star players, Southampton were criticised for their decisions as it paved a way for a season that could have gone in the wrong direction. But manager Ronald Koeman built a new fresh atmosphere around the players and as a result the club lies third with 33% of the league completed.
The Saints have won many hearts this season. The Dutchman has implemented his methods to perfection. A third position in the Premier League table, which was second for a long time until Sunday, hasn't been based on luck but actual determination and brilliant application. Defensively, the Southampton backline has been a barrier after conceding the fewest goals (9) in the 13 matches so far. Their 8-0 win against Sunderland has been the season's highlight so far.
But their results against top teams have not been encouraging. They lost to Liverpool and Tottenham, before being blanked by City on Sunday. Koeman will be wary of the record against top teams and the test that lies ahead.
The team needs to hang in there to have a realistic chance of staking a claim for the top four. They will benefit surely from the experience during the run against the top teams where their ability to handle tough opponents will prove decisive.
With the January transfer window coming up, Koeman would want to get his hands on some proven talent that could add some vitality in their squad for the run-in to season end.