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Darren Lewis: Southampton are still top four contenders – they deserve more respect

26 Feb | BY Betway | MIN READ TIME |
Darren Lewis: Southampton are still top four contenders – they deserve more respect

The race for the top 4 is the most wide-open it has ever been. With the best defence in the League Southampton are still in the thick of it.

THEY haven’t fallen as hard as either Madonna or Arsenal.

They have certainly not been as humbled as Manchester City were during those 45 minutes in which they were home schooled by Barcelona this week.

But with just one win in their last five games Southampton’s top four odds are getting bigger and bigger.

The south coast club’s form has deserted them just as the race for the Champions League places approaches the turn for home.

Yet with that race being perhaps the most wide open in Premier League history it would be crazy to write off the Saints too soon.

They still have the best defence in the Premier League. They still have a manager whose winning mentality has inspired a decent group of players to perform magnificently above themselves.

And they could also benefit from the dramas surrounding the other runners and riders.

Leaden Manchester United’s problems were ruthlessly exposed at Swansea last weekend. Arsenal could be left mentally scarred by that crushing Champions League defeat to Monaco.

Tottenham and Liverpool have been battling fixture congestion while West Ham look to have left themselves too much to do.

With all that in mind it would be crazy to assume the Saints are finished.

The big problem for Ronald Koeman and his men, however, is goals. They have run out of ammunition at the time that they need it most.

In their last four games they have netted just once, when Eljero Elia struck in the dying seconds to sink QPR at Loftus Road.

Apart from that they have failed to score in games they would have won at home during the first half of the season against Swansea and West Ham.

Last Sunday, even allowing for some shocking decisions by referee Kevin Friend, Southampton still had chances against Liverpool that they just didn’t take.

And now Koeman has to somehow find a way past a West Brom side that have kept clean sheets in four of their last five League games since Tony Pulis took over.

Saints striker Graziano Pelle – an £8million signing last summer – was filling his boots at the start of the season with 10 goals in his first 13 appearances. Over the same period of time West Brom were beginning to fear they’d been sold a donkey in Brown Ideye who had cost them £10million but netted just twice.

Since that fateful last hour of Deadline Day in the January transfer window, when Ideye’s move to Qatari club Al Gharafa fell through, the roles have been reversed – and then some.

Ideye has hit four in his last five games. Pelle has yet to score in four matches. 

This column understands Koeman has taken 29-year-old Pelle, with whom he has a good relationship, and made him aware in no uncertain terms that his recent form – just one goal in his last 12 – is unacceptable.

There has been none of this “He works hard for the team” nonsense from Koeman. Pelle has a supporting cast to do all that. He is there to score goals. He needs some now.

There is an argument to suggest that Koeman is paying the price for not drafting in another striker during the January transfer window.

This column believes, however, that he was right to show faith in Pelle. Koeman also has the highly-rated Jay Rodriguez – with whom he is being ultra-patient – to return in the coming weeks after rupturing an anterior cruciate ligament last season.

In the meantime Elia and Sadio Mane will have to do more to back Pelle up. Southampton also have Morgan Schneiderlin back to full fitness to resume that midfield axis which has been so productive with Victor Wanyama.

The Saints have been through dark times during this Premier League season before, most notably when they lost five out of six – four of them in the League – during November and December.

Again, the critics suggested their bubble had burst and that they were set to get swallowed up by the bigger and better-resourced clubs around them.

Their response? Wins against Everton, Palace, Arsenal and Manchester United with a draw against Chelsea for good measure.

They still have quality. They still have belief. They are still a club very much in the mix in a battle for the top four that is far more open than some would have you believe. 

Could you call the teams that will finish third and fourth now?