Manchester City up first in testing run for Ronald Koeman’s unlikely lads at Southampton

Sitting second in the table, but Premier League big hitters loom on fixture list.

Southampton manager Ronald Koeman. AFP
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Just before the season started, Ronald Koeman assessed Southampton’s chances and advised those who were predicting his new side were going to go down that they would look foolish come the end of the ­season.

It was sound advice.

Despite Southampton having lost their highly rated manager and five of their best players in the off-season, less than a third of the way into this campaign they have two-thirds of the points required to stay up.

They are second in the league, separating Chelsea and Manchester City.

Disappointingly, although understandably as it would have ben absurd, no one thought back in August to canvass Koeman’s views on a title challenge.

Now the surprise packages are confronted by other questions.

After victory at Hull at the start of this month, Koeman argued Southampton could challenge for the title.

“Maybe,” he said. “Continue winning, continue up in the table, then why not?”

He then tempered his words with a more realistic suggestion they might qualify for Europe, because perhaps not since promoted Nottingham Forest were crowned league champions in 1978 has England had such an improbable title winner.

Yet on Friday, Koeman again was showing optimism about their chances. “We’ve played 12 games now. I haven’t seen one team better than us,” he said.

If the initial test was whether Southampton could weather the departures and prove they would remain in the division, now they have a different examination of their credentials.

In the next nine days they face Manchester City, Arsenal and Manchester United – a trial by the best.

It will sort out where they are, especially as Saints meet Everton and Chelsea later in December and are yet to take a point against the established order.

Their rise is a consequence of their prowess against the lesser lights.

Koeman’s side have only played twice against teams who finished above them last season, losing to Liverpool, unluckily, and Tottenham.

They have taken 26 points from a possible 30 against (in theory) inferior opposition.

A record of perfect consistency in winnable games is marred only by draws against West Bromwich Albion and Aston Villa.

Southampton’s last win against elite opposition was April’s 2-0 victory against Everton, when Mauricio Pochettino was still at St Mary’s as manager and his team featured Luke Shaw, Dejan Lovren, Adam Lallana and Rickie Lambert, four of the departures in the summer sales.

The evidence this season is that Southampton have upgraded in most positions: Graziano Pelle is younger and more potent than Lambert, Dusan Tadic brings more skill and assists than Lallana.

While Lovren struggles at Liverpool, Toby Alderweireld has dovetailed wonderfully with his former partner Jose Fonte in the Southampton defence.

Ryan Bertrand has proved an unobtrusively excellent alternative to Shaw, even if he does not have the teenager’s potential.

Calum Chambers, the other to exit, has been replaced by Nathaniel Clyne, who was his rival for the right-back spot last season.

By any standards, theirs has been a successful spending spree and not just because they ended the summer with a sizeable profit.

Now Southampton will be assessed in different ways.

They will be appraised in relation to City, the defending champions, to Arsenal, the most consistent top-four finishers of all, and to United, the biggest summer spenders.

Despite Koeman’s confidence, there is no logical way Southampton should fare better in any comparison, even though their defensive record is at least twice as good as that of any of their next three opponents.

A less romantic and more pragmatic suggestion would be to concentrate on beating last season’s 56 point, eighth-placed effort. Because, to return to Koeman’s August words, that seemed his initial aim.

“I know it will be tough to do the same as last season, but it’s a nice target and a nice challenge,” he said. “Some people may be talking about relegation, but I am a positive person. We will show them that is not the real situation.”

It certainly is not now as Southampton wait to see if a different reality will bite when they face the big hitters.