Can Southampton or West Ham really make it to the big time?

The Premier League table is going to be very positive viewing for West Ham and Southampton fans on Christmas Day.

The East London club currently sit comfortably in the top four on 31 points, with Southampton close behind on 29 points. Neither of these teams were tipped to excel this season but they have proved many doubters wrong. West Ham have adopted a new style of play that gets the best out of Andy Carroll but also keeps the Upton Park faithful happy. Ronald Koeman’s Saints side have been a joy to watch at times and really hit the ground running, with all their new signings working well together from the off.

It was as if many were waiting for at least one of either Southampton or West Ham to slip away come Christmas. However, there is a sense that the opposite is happening. As teams like Arsenal, Liverpool and Everton continue to drop points, the Hammers and Saints are starting to build a sizeable gap. West Ham are currently nine points ahead of Liverpool, with the Reds lying in 10th place. Due to there being such a gap, it has got many people wondering whether either side can maintain this run of form to seriously bid for a Champions League spot come May.

Firstly, Southampton have shown over the season so far that they are more than capable of maintaining a European push. They recently went on a five-game losing streak and many presumed that this was the start of Southampton’s demise. However, a hugely impressive 3-0 victory over Everton on Saturday silenced any critics as the Saints showed little sign of their recent poor form. The absence of players like Morgan Schneiderlin, Dusan Tadic and Victor Wanyama in recent weeks exposed Southampton’s lack of depth in midfield, with Koeman opting to select youngsters like Harrison Reed and Jake Hesketh as replacements. Although the reliance on the younger players can be seen as an issue, there is no doubt that Southampton have some of the finest young talent in the country who seem to thrive when they are given the opportunity on the big stage.

The key for Southampton is that they avoid becoming a selling club. Morgan Schneiderlin was angry at club chairman Ralf Krueger after he stated that the midfielder would not be leaving over the summer. However, the Frenchman knuckled down and has been one of Southampton’s best players so far this campaign. It will be interesting to see how the midfielder copes in January amid rumoured interest from both Tottenham Hostpur and Arsenal. If the south-coast club can avoid selling star names and actually strengthen their squad, there is no reason why they can’t challenge for a place amongst Europe’s elite.

Sam Allardyce’s West Ham side have been outstanding so far this season. An excellent transfer window for the East London club is paramount to the encouraging displays West Ham fans have witnessed at Upton Park and on the road as well. Almost every player that was brought in over the summer has made a positive impact and the squad depth is a key strength for Sam Allardyce over what is expected to be a long and dramatic season ahead. The return of Andy Carroll has been a bonus for the club who were performing rather well in his absence due to the partnership of Diafra Sakho and Enner Valencia up front. The Geordie has scored three goals so far this season and has already won the second highest amount of aerial duels despite playing in only seven games so far. This shows that West Ham have kept the aerial strength that made them a threat in the last campaign but they have also incorporated a different dimension to their play. This is because players like the rejuvenated Stewart Downing and the impressive Alex Song can now open up teams through the middle, rather than going wide and becoming predictable.

The important element to West Ham’s push for Europe is keeping Andy Carroll fit. He has slotted into the side very nicely and their new style of play seems to suit him more than the aerial tactics that dominated the club’s play last season. He does provide West Ham with a second option as they can look long at times, something which will be very useful away from home if they can’t keep hold of possession – a target man to aim at who will always cause problems for any defence.

If they can keep their main striker fit and avoid a run of poor results they could easily finish fourth. However, Christmas fixtures against Chelsea and Arsenal will offer a clear perspective on where West Ham can realistically finish at the end of the season. January’s African Cup of Nations will also mean the potential absences of Alex Song, Diafra Sakho and Cheikou Kouyate who have been very impressive this season.

If West Ham can cope without some of their key men in January, their return with inject a fresh impetus into the side. Hammers fans should be excited at the opportunity that awaits them this season, they just have to maintain the consistent form that has made them a joy to watch so far.