Southampton were at their stubborn, resilient best once again on Saturday as a late Sadio Mane strike earned them a priceless 1-0 victory at Queens Park Rangers. The win kept the Saints firmly lodged in the top four, with a staggering 45 points from 24 games.
We’ve ran out of superlatives to describe how good a job Ronald Koeman has done at St Mary’s this season, so it’s just best to look at the Premier League table and believe what you see. The disappointing run of at the start of December aside, the Saints have been incredibly consistent, and everyone involved in the club must now believe they have a genuine chance of securing Champions League football for next season.
But the Southampton boss has other ideas. I’m sure deep down he’s silently optimistic, but Koeman has gone for the ‘under the radar’ approach. Sometimes a bit of reverse psychology is just what a club needs when they are exceeding their expectations. After the Saints’ last-gasp victory over QPR on Saturday, the ex-Ajax and Feyenoord boss was quoted by Sky Sports as saying:
“I still look down more than up. Maybe in three weeks it will be different, but we are watching the teams around us at the moment and behind us. That’s our focus, rather than second or first place. It’s not all about the top four places in the table.”
Koeman added: “We are trying to reach a European position for next season, that is the target. Seventh place may be enough for that or sixth.”
Last week, Southampton were bitterly disappointed to lose at home to Swansea City when a late Jonjo Shelvey goal sealed all three points for the Swans. The manner of the defeat against Swansea made the win at Loftus Road even sweeter for Koeman, with manager again telling Sky after the game:
“How we played today and the result was very important. In a season you always have some key moments and one of these was today. After last week’s defeat, we needed to show how we like to play football and to have a good result and get three points. That’s very good. It’s our fourth win away in a row and that’s fantastic.”
So is the Saints boss doing the right thing by playing down his side’s top four chances? Well, as always in these situations, the talking will be done on the pitch. You have to strongly believe that every Southampton player who steps across that white line has real ambitions of getting into the top four. For a team who were tipped to struggle this term, to be third in the league at this stage of the season is a monumental achievement in itself, regardless of what happens between now and the end of the campaign.
The South Coast club have as good a chance as any of the sides challenging for a Champions League spot – the Saints have the squad, the backing and certainly the manager to pull off what seemed an impossible task at the start of the season. If Koeman’s side do get the job done, then it will surely have to go down as one of Southampton’s greatest achievements of all time.