London: Southampton`s nascent quest for Champions League qualification faces an acid test over the next 10 days, beginning with Sunday`s visit of Premier League champions Manchester City.
The south-coast club have belied pre-season fears of a relegation battle following the sales of several key players by making their best start to a Premier League season and soaring to second place in the table.
Ronald Koeman`s side have won eight of their last 10 matches, only dropping points in a 1-0 defeat at Tottenham Hotspur and last Monday`s 1-1 draw at Aston Villa.
Boasting a defence that has conceded just six goals in 12 games -- five fewer than any other team -- they have emerged as the closest rivals to leaders Chelsea, who have a six-point advantage over Koeman`s men.
But City are only two points back in third place and with Southampton scheduled to visit Arsenal on Wednesday before hosting Manchester United on December 8, their top-four credentials face a thorough examination.
"On Sunday we are playing against one of the teams that can win the title and we know that we have to play better than we did last Monday against Aston Villa," Koeman told his pre-match press conference.
"But Southampton is not an easy team to play against and we will show that again. If we want to do something special this season, we need to win these kind of games."
The former Netherlands international added: "We have played 12 games in the Premier League so far.
"I have not seen a better team than us in these 12 games and we have played Liverpool and Tottenham. Maybe on Sunday, but we will see."City`s form dived in late-October, as they won only once in six matches in all competitions.
But having come from behind to beat Swansea City 2-1 last weekend, they produced a stunning display to sink Bayern Munich 3-2 in mid-week and keep their hopes of a place in the Champions League last 16 alive.
Sergio Aguero was City`s saviour against Bayern, claiming a hat-trick to take his tally for the season to 17 goals, and manager Manuel Pellegrini believes the Argentine still has room for improvement.
"I think that no-one can replace (Lionel) Messi at Barcelona, (Cristiano) Ronaldo at Real Madrid or Sergio here, or a lot of very important players," said the Chilean.
"It is not the same, playing without Aguero as with Aguero. He has many years more to play here. I am always asking and demanding that he tries to be the best player, because he has all the conditions to do that."
Aguero is in line to make his 100th league appearance for City this weekend, having scored 64 times in 99 games to date. Only Ruud van Nistelrooy (68) and Southampton old boy Alan Shearer (79) were more prolific in their first 100 matches.
Aguero opened the scoring on his last visit to St Mary`s in a 1-1 draw a year ago. City prevailed 4-1 when the sides last met in April, but they have not won away to Southampton since November 2003.
With Edin Dzeko still sidelined by a calf problem, Pellegrini may elect to restore Stevan Jovetic to his starting XI after the Montenegrin striker started the Bayern game on the bench.
Playmaker David Silva (knee) and left-back Aleksandar Kolarov (calf) remain unavailable, but midfielders Yaya Toure and Fernandinho are in line to return after being suspended against Bayern.
Northern Irish midfielder Steven Davis is a doubt for Southampton with a hamstring complaint, while James Ward-Prowse (foot), Sam Gallagher (knee) and long-term injury victim Jay Rodriguez (knee) are all out.