Stoke City-Southampton Preview
Southampton are in position to finish in the top eight of the Premier League for a fourth straight season as they close out the campaign Sunday at St. Mary's against a Stoke City squad struggling to the tape.
While they will miss out on Europa League play, the eighth-place Saints (12-10-15) are currently the best of the rest as they enter the final matchday 15 points behind the top seven while one point better than West Bromwich Albion and Bournemouth.
Southampton will finish no worse than 11th, but a win would mark the best run for the club since a six-season span in the First Division from 1979-85 in which they placed eighth or better five times, highlighted by a runner-up finish to Liverpool in the 1983-84 term.
Claude Puel's team, though, is labouring to the finish amid a 1-3-3 stretch, scoring just four goals in that span while being blanked five times. They played out a scoreless draw against Manchester United at home Wednesday, with Manolo Gabbiadini having a penalty saved by Sergio Romero in the sixth minute.
It was the third miss from the spot in the last five games, and Puel was left to lament gaining only one point in a game where his side carried play for much of the match.
"I think two things, in the first half there was not enough on the play," he told Southampton's official website. "I don't know if the penalty miss made my players nervous. We had a number of situations where we need to score and I felt we deserved the three points but their goalkeeper made some fantastic saves."
"It was a game that we knew a win would help us secure eighth place, but unfortunately we haven't done that and we go again Sunday," added James Ward-Prowse.
Southampton haven't scored at St Mary's in 365 minutes dating to Ward-Prowse's goal to close out a 3-1 win over Crystal Palace on April 5. It's their longest such drought at home in league play since returning to the top flight for the 2012-13 season. Their 17 goals at St Mary's lags far behind their 39-goal haul from last season, as does their 18 points from home matches this term compared to 36 in the 2015-16 campaign.
Like the Saints, the Potters (10-11-16) have wilted down the stretch by going 1-3-6 in their last 10. Stoke were overrun at home by Arsenal 4-1 on May 13, and Mark Hughes admitted he had chosen the wrong strategy in trying to slow down a desperate Gunners team chasing a Champions League spot.
"Hindsight is a wonderful thing, but to be perfectly honest maybe I should have gone for a more direct approach from the off," he conceded. "(Peter Crouch) certainly shook things up for us and gave us a more potent threat, and yes, maybe I should have gone with him from the start and just gone for it a little bit more."
Those words provide little solace as Stoke City will finish out of the top half of the table for the first time in four seasons. They haven't finished better than ninth in nine seasons since earning promotion in 2008, but a loss here could drop them as low as 16th, which would be the Potters' worst finish in that run.
Hughes already has an eye on the summer transfer market, hoping to find players who will bring needed quality to a team that took only one point in 10 matches against the top five teams in the table and had the 36-year-old Crouch emerge as the team's top scorer in all competitions with nine goals.
"We have let ourselves down on occasions this season, especially in matches against the top six or seven sides," he admitted. "There are one or two things we need to look at in the summer and there are one or two key decisions to make in terms of personnel."
Stoke grounded out a scoreless draw in the reverse fixture, playing with 10 men from the 23rd minute after Marko Arnautovic was given a straight red card by referee Anthony Taylor for a high tackle on Sofiane Boufal. Southampton had nearly three-quarters possession but failed to generate quality scoring chances save a drive by Ryan Bertrand that Lee Grant parried with a diving save.
Stoke City picked up their first win at St Mary's in five tries (1-2-2) in the Premier League era last season, riding a 10th-minute goal by Bojan Krkic to a 1-0 victory.
Updated May 19, 2017