The Southampton Preview
So, I was essentially called a fence-sitting-apologist after posting some thoughts about Chris Hughton on Social Media this week.
All fine and dandy -'twas merely in jest- though it did get my back up initially.
I've never over-glorified the man, but I've no shame in admitting that I'm part of an ever-decreasing section of fans who're still behind him and believe, for the rest of the season at least, he's still the man for the job.
There are some he can't possibly win back now, even if we stay up and finish the season strongly. I've no idea what tact the board will take at the end of the season, though at this point anything is possible.
One thing Hughton doesn't get enough credit for is the defensive work he's done. Some will scoff at that and point to a fair few defensive frailties we've had in some games, and the likes of Sebastien Bassong haven't helped that viewpoint recently. But we've actually conceded fewer goals than at this point last season and we've already beaten last year's number of clean sheets.
For all of Lambert's attacking prowess as a coach, defence was something he never could quite get right, and that's also been a big problem during his Aston Villa spell.
The biggest problem we have is our strikers. I thought a change of emphasis and a change of forward-thinking was needed earlier in the season on the back of some disappointing early displays, but Hughton actually HAS tried to implement this, especially at home. How many chances have been created in recent home games, from the likes of Snodrass, Olsson etc? We're constantly putting balls into the box and some opportunities have been gift-wrapped too, either for strikers or midfielders in an advanced position.
These players in particular must be held accountable. There's no excuse now: They're getting into good positions, getting good service, and they desperately need to be taking these chances. Your guess is as good as mine as to why they're missing, but there's only so much you can blame the manager for that and not the players.
The re-implementation of Wes Hoolahan to the first team has made us a lot sharper, and that gives me hope, as do the likes of Robert Snodgrass who constantly works his unmentionables off for the cause and looks more and more comfortable as a Premier League player as he clocks up more minutes on the pitch. John Ruddy has been superb this season, and if the defence in front of him can just keep their cool for a few more games and keep the silly mistakes to a minimum, we'll be ok. The key is the strikers finally making a positive contribution to the scoreline from now on.
Here's the usual bits and pieces.
Alex Tetty looks to be back in the squad after going down with a knee injury last weekend against Stoke. Michael Turner and Jonas Gutierrez are both back in training but Hughton doesn't have them in his plans for Saturday. Leroy Fer is struggling with his hamstring but Elliot Bennett is about to resume full-training after a long period out with knee injury.
Southampton will be without Victor Wanyama after picking up a knock in training. Jack Cork also looks to be out and Dejan Lovren is also struggling after an illness.
LAST TIME WE MET
Last season's meeting on the South coast finished all square in a decent mid-week encounter.
The build-up all centred around the return of referee Mark Clattenburg, who was in charge of his first game since the fallout from an incident at Stamford Bridge (he was falsely accused of racism).
Rickie Lambert put the hosts in front and it looked set to be a long night for the travelling contingent, but a Robert Snodgrass free-kick caught Saints' keeper Paulo Gazzaniga napping to tie the scores.
Earlier this season, the Canaries earned their first win of the campaign at Carrow Road, as Nathan Redmond produced a cracking effort to take the game at 1-0.
Southampton: Stoke City (D), Hull City (W), Sunderland (L), West Ham (L), Liverpool (L), Crystal Palace (W).
Two wins and a draw from their last six for the Saints, which isn't as good as their form throughout most of the season but they still pose a decent threat to anyone, especially at home.
Norwich: Cardiff (L), Man City (D), West Ham (L), Tottenham (W), Aston Villa (L), Stoke (D)
The 0-0 with Man City and the 1-0 over Spurs are big results, but dropped points against West Ham and Stoke and the hammering from Villa make City's run-in that little bit more preacrious.
HEAD TO HEAD STAT
It's been pretty much honours even in the last seven games between these two in all competitions, with five draws and a win traded either way.
WHAT'S IN STORE?
With the Saints buoyed by their recent win away to Palace, they'll be especially keen to keep that momentum going at home. With some of the Southampton players playing for England call-ups for the World Cup, they'll be even keener to make a good impression during the run-in.
Now, more than ever, we need to be beating teams outside of the top spots if we're going to have any chance of survival. Away fixtures always fill me with dread due to our form outside of Norfolk, but now is as good a time as any to make amends. It'll be a seriously tough ask though.