Southampton-Leicester City Preview
All season long, Leicester City have proved themselves the best team in the Premier League, befitting their status as frontrunners with seven matches remaining.
So one can only imagine the confidence they'll have heading into Sunday's contest at King Power Stadium versus Southampton after their top players acquitted themselves quite well during the international break.
Stepping out to play for country may have been the best thing for the Foxes (19-9-3), who are adjusting to being the team that must attack as opposed to their preferred style of hitting on the counter. But as championship-calibre teams do, the Foxes successfully adjusted - evidenced by three successive 1-0 victories before the break to maintain their five-point lead at the summit.
With the European Championship approaching this summer, it was time for Leicester's stars to shine on the international stage. Jamie Vardy continued his exceptional campaign, scoring on a cheeky flick as a reserve in England's victory over Germany and netting once more as part of Roy Hodgson's starting XI in a loss to the Netherlands.
"I feel brilliant personally and over the course of the international break there's massive positives to take and that's what we can work on to improve," he told Leicester's official website.
"They (the goals) can only be good for my confidence. We'll be going back to training this week and coming off of two goals, I'll be trying to score at the weekend."
Vardy hasn't scored in his last five league matches, but he's been at the centre of the action, assisting on the last two match-winners. He also had a brace in the reverse fixture at St Mary's in October, salvaging a point for the Foxes with his goals coming after the final half-hour.
Danny Drinkwater, Vardy's compatriot, won Man of the Match honours in his Three Lions debut as a holding midfielder against the Dutch. N'Golo Kante - the tireless ball-hunting midfielder who usually plays Drinkwater's role for the Foxes - continued his breakthrough season for France as he scored in a 4-2 victory over Russia while celebrating his 25th birthday with his maiden start.
Winger Riyad Mahrez sparked Algeria to the cusp of advancing from their qualifying group in the African Nations Cup with a pair of assists in a 7-1 rout of Ethiopia before the teams played to a 3-3 draw in their reverse fixture.
So with all their stars aligned properly on the pitch, Leicester's hope is the stars continue to align as their unlikely title chase resumes and draws closer to the stretch run.
"He (Vardy) is on flames," Drinkwater said. "If he can take that into his club form as well as country then perfect. I've just got to concentrate on my club football now and hopefully that form will show."
Southampton (13-8-10) showed fine form heading into the break with consecutive wins on the bounce, buoyed by a stunning 3-2 victory over Liverpool as the Saints handed the Reds their first Premier League era loss when leading 2-0.
Sadio Mane had a brace around a goal by Graziano Pelle, and while Southampton are seventh on 47 points, they're just four out of a Champions League spot.
But coming out of the international break has been a sore spot for the Saints. They've failed to win any of their previous three matches in such instances, including the draw with Leicester City.
Keeper Fraser Forster, who started against the Netherlands and saw unexpectedly more playing time for England with Joe Hart out due to injury and Jack Butland suffering a broken ankle against Germany, is quite aware of this weekend's challenge after watching Vardy up close.
"Leicester are obviously going really well and it's just a case of preparing as well as we can over the next few days," he told the team's official website. "It's going to be a tough game and we need the points as well, but it will be a real test for us."
To a man, the Saints seem up to the challenge of trying to nick a point or three in a hostile environment, with the carrot of European play next season a very high form of motivation.
"It's a big game for both teams," Dutch defender Virgil van Dijk said. "They are in a very good place, but we're also trying to push for the European places. I think we have been very good lately and hopefully we can get a good result."
With 54 goals, Leicester are one shy of matching their Premier League record set in the 1999-2000 season. They also carry an 11-match home unbeaten streak (7-4-0) in league play into this match, having posted six clean sheets in the last seven at King Power Stadium.
Pelle, who has a team-leading 10 goals in all competitions for Southampton, has three in his last two matches after a 13-match barren spell.