Stoke City-Southampton Preview
Every year, one or two clubs jump out to a good start in the early months of the Premier League campaign.
This season's early surprise is Leicester City, but one could also argue no club has been consistently on the up-tick more than Southampton over the past few seasons.
Ronald Koeman's South Coast club are set to face Stoke City on Saturday at St. Mary's Stadium looking to continue an excellent run of form.
Coming off a 1-0 win over struggling Sunderland prior to the break in which Dusan Tadic converted a 69th-minute penalty kick, the Saints are aiming for a third straight win on the bounce and a seventh consecutive result without a loss. Southampton haven't gone seven straight league matches without a loss since September-November 2013.
A win for the Saints (5-2-5) could take them as high as fifth in the table depending on other results this weekend, and they'll need to continue their penchant for second-half scoring in order to claim the points in front of the home crowd. Only Manchester City (19) and Leicester (13) have scored more league goals at home than Southampton's 12.
Stoke City, however, presents a unique challenge and will be a difficult side to break down, according to Koeman.
"They are tough to beat," the Dutchman said at his pre-match news conference. "It's a strong team and they have good away performances this season.
"They played six away games, they lost only one and they conceded only five goals, and that's very good and that means it will be difficult for us to beat them."
Forward Shane Long is likely to be available for Southampton despite coming on as a substitute in the 55th minute of the Republic of Ireland's 2-0 win over Bosnia-Herzegovina in 2016 European Championship qualifying. While the news on Long is positive, things aren't looking so good for fellow striker Jay Rodriguez, who likely faces surgery for an ankle injury.
"His foot is a problem, it gives him a lot of pain," Koeman added. "We did everything and now the final call may be surgery next week."
Stoke City are aiming for a second consecutive victory following a 1-0 result over defending champions Chelsea prior to the break in which Marko Arnautovic netted the lone tally in the 53rd minute.
The Potters (4-4-4) will have to break out quickly of their own attacking half if they hope to catch Southampton out, but Mark Hughes' club also possess enough back-to-goal threats that they can bunker and try to strike via counter-attack or direct play.
Stoke will be without Marc Muniesa due to a hamstring injury, but defender Erik Pieters will be available despite breaking his nose in two places against Chelsea.
"At the moment, as a consequence of a little bit of luck and the way that we look after our players, we are in good health," Hughes remarked. "It will be tricky but we are in good spirits and we can approach these games with plenty of optimism."
Hughes' club has also been stout on the defensive end of the pitch, having kept four clean sheets in their last five Premier League matches, but the club has struggled on the South Coast of late.
Our record there isn't great," the manager added. "We have been down there and taken a point, which was decent, but ideally we want to get three."
These sides last met in October 2014, with the Saints claiming a 1-0 win thanks to a 33rd-minute goal courtesy of Sadio Mane. Stoke City are also winless in their last three trips to St. Mary's Stadium, going 0-2-1.