Southampton-Stoke City Preview
European qualification beckons for Stoke City and Southampton.
The two clubs meet at the Britannia on Saturday, with both eyeing a push for the Europa League qualifying spots in their remaining nine matches.
Mark Hughes' Stoke (12-7-10) are in a terrific run of form, having taken 10 points from their last four games, and are just four points off sixth-placed Manchester United going into the latest round of games.
A 1-1 draw against Chelsea last weekend saw the Potters spurn a number of opportunities to extend their winning run to four games, but Hughes was nevertheless impressed with his team's display.
"The performance and more performances like that will encourage us to think that (Stoke can qualify for Europe)," Hughes said. "We've been mindful that this could be a very special year for us, but we have to maintain our focus and keep our form. At the moment we seem to be doing that."
Saturday's visitors Southampton (11-8-10) are just two points behind the Potters, but have suffered a dip in form of late - picking up just one point from their last two games against struggling Bournemouth and relegation-threatened Sunderland.
A win at the Britannia would give the Saints a much-needed boost towards pushing for European qualification in the remaining weeks of the season, but manager Ronald Koeman knows his team are in for a tough afternoon.
"It's a big game against Stoke," Koeman said. "Both teams have a lot of ambition to grow and it's always very close between us.
"It's a tough place to go. They're doing a great job, they've signed very good players."
A Bojan Krkic goal was enough to give Stoke the win when these teams met at St Mary's earlier in the season, with the visitors' new and improved style catching the south coast club cold.
"We didn't play well and we were surprised by their fast counter-attacking," Koeman noted. "We learned from that. We know we have a team who can beat Stoke, but we need to be at our top level."
Stoke have produced some superb performances this season, with the dual attacking threat of Marko Arnautovic and Xherdan Shaqiri on the wings adding subtlety to the attacking line.
January signing Giannelli Imbula has added composure on the ball and a cultured physicality to the Stoke midfield since his arrival from Porto, linking up nicely with Glenn Whelan in the centre of the park.
"Maybe fans have now seen a different side to my game, which I've always had but am now able to show a little bit more of," said Whelan, who will make his 300th Stoke appearance Saturday. "There have been many midfielders signed in the last eight to ten years, so it has always been up to me to push on and hopefully be as good or better than them to get in the team.
"The manager has taken this club on to a new level and I've been able to make that step up as well."
Stoke are without Phil Bardsley, Glen Johnson and Marc Wilson due to injury, but Ryan Shawcross and Charlie Adam are expected to be available.
Southampton have striker Shane Long fit after a knee problem, but Charlie Austin and Jay Rodriguez remain a few weeks away from full fitness.
It will be a battle of the England goalkeeper hopefuls on Saturday. Stoke's Jack Butland has made more saves (98) than any other keeper in the Premier League this season, while Southampton stopper Fraser Forster has the division's highest ratio of saves to shots-on-target (81.5 percent).
Both are hoping to join Manchester City's Joe Hart in France this summer for the European Championships.
The Saints have won just two of their last eight away games, but have kept clean sheets in three of their last four on the road.