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Saturday, 15 December, 2018

Austin's powers can keep Saints alive in Premier League dogfight

Southampton to test Chelsea at St Mary's

Southampton striker Charlie Austin
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Premier League
Sky Sports Premier League, 12.30pm Saturday

Southampton meet Chelsea in the FA Cup semi-finals next week but there is no doubt the Premier League clash at St Mary's is far more important to Saints as they look to stay alive in the top flight.

It has felt for much of the campaign that Southampton would eventually find a way out of trouble, filed in the dangerous category of being too good to go down, but here they are, three points from safety with six matches remaining.

Saints desperately need a win and their hunger for points should see them adopt an attacking policy which could lead to goals at both ends, with Charlie Austin's return from injury a timely boost.

Austin came off the bench to score in Sunday's 3-2 defeat at Arsenal when the performance was more encouraging than the result, particularly with Shane Long also looking lively in attack.

Mark Hughes has attempted to make Southampton a more adventurous side since replacing Mauricio Pellegrino as manager, but in doing so the balance of the side has not been quite right.

They were lucky to overcome Sky Bet League One side Wigan in the FA Cup quarter-finals in Hughes's opener and followed that with a shambolic 3-0 loss at West Ham.

Saints were more competitive at the Emirates, although they still conceded three times and must do without centre-back Jack Stephens following his late red card in that game.

It's only one league win in 19 for Southampton and that came against rock-bottom West Brom, while their only top-flight clean sheet in 2018 came against 19th-placed Stoke.

However, Chelsea are not a side to be overly confident about at odds-on even though they were unlucky to draw 1-1 with West Ham last week.

That result has surely left them with too much to do in terms of qualifying for the top four after Tottenham extended the gap to ten points.

It feels as if Antonio Conte is just playing out time before his probable departure in the summer and next week's FA Cup semi-final is a potentially season-saving fixture for the Blues.

Saturday football columns

Didi Hamann

Mark Langdon

Kevin Pullein

Nick Goff

Chelsea have managed just two clean sheets in their last 12 matches - against Hull and West Brom - and their away form of two wins in their last 13 trips should give Southampton hope.

Those away successes (in 90 minutes) came against promoted pair Brighton and Huddersfield and since the 4-0 win at Brighton on January 20 the Premier League champions have lost difficult clashes at Arsenal, Manchester United, Manchester City and Barcelona.

Conte's side were, however, also hammered 4-1 at Watford which is much more difficult to gloss over.

Both teams to score
1pt 10-11 Hills

Premier League standings

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Team news
Jack Stephens is suspended and Steven Davis is injured.

Danny Drinkwater is struggling with a groin problem. David Luiz and Ethan Ampadu are injured.

Key stat
Southampton have kept one clean sheet in 16 matches against top-half opponents this season.

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Southampton have kept one clean sheet in 16 matches against top-half opponents this season
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