Southampton's 22 days of hell

Claude Puel and his side will be tested to the limit over the next three weeks with another plethora of games in multiple competitions.

Southampton's 22 days of hell
Southampton face an immensely tough set of matches. Photo: Getty.

It is fair to say that at the moment, Southampton are reaping the rewards for their hard work and subsequent success over the past few seasons by getting the opportunity to test themselves on the European stage. 

A superb end to the 2015/16 Premier League Season earnt the Saints a place in the group stage of the Europa League in the following season. For the club's players and fans alike, this was a huge achievement, and the prospect of a memorable trip to the San Siro to face European heavyweight Inter Milan is no more than they deserve.

However, this success hasn't come without a cost for Claude Puel's men. When Southampton's players touch back down on the South Coast after the recent international break, they will find a ridiculously packed fixture list ahead of them. As well as the unfamiliar European commitments, the Saints will be looking to continue their good form in the Premier League, and progress further in the EFL Cup, all in the space of little over three weeks.

For manager Puel, the problems are already mounting. Not only will he have to see his side his side through this extreme run of matches, injuries sustained over the past fortnight have weakened an already relatively thin squad and, if that wasn't enough, Southampton face some of the biggest names in European club football. 

The fixtures

To be precise, Southampton will have to play 6 games in 22 days across three different competitions. In that same period, fellow Premier League side West Bromwich Albion will play twice. With so many matches to play in all corners of both the country and continent, this very challenging run could make or break the Saints' season.

Southampton's ludicrous run of fixtures. Photo: Google.
Southampton's ludicrous run of fixtures. Photo: Google.

Yet it is not just the quantity of games that is causing the issues around St Mary's, it is also the quality of opposition. Yes, Southampton will begin and end this run with games against promoted teams, but crammed in between those matches are four encounters with world-class opposition. 

Southampton will expect to begin the challenge with a routine win over Burnley, before jetting off to Italy for the eagerly-anticipated game with Inter Milan. While the Champions League winners of just six years ago are not the force they were, the intimidating nature of the San Siro will be enough of a test. 

The Saints will then be welcome back to England with an away trip to the current league leaders; Pep Guardiola's Manchester City. Just three days later, it is back to St Mary's for the EFL Cup last 16 contest with Sunderland. This starts a run of three consecutive home games, with Antonio Conte's Chelsea and the return fixture against Inter following. For the players that survive that, they will sign off for the next international break with a tricky trip up to a passionate and united Hull City side. 

To cut a long story short, it is going to be a pretty difficult three weeks for those in red and white stripes.

The injuries

As if the set of fixtures wasn't enough, Southampton have had the misfortune to have to watch helplessly as key players were injured while away with their countries. Puel could potentially be without a recognised left-back on Sunday as both Ryan Bertrand and Matthew Targett picked up knocks last week, with the former definitely being unavailable for the Burnley clash. 

Striker Shane Long is also potentially side-lined after limping off during Ireland's game in Moldova. He adds to the growing injury list which could also include right-back Cedric Soares, who was forced off in Southampton's last game, the 0-0 draw at Leicester.

Shane Long added to Southampton's growing injury list while on international duty. Photo: Getty.

Puel was criticised by many in the summer for not strengthening the squad enough after key departures, with the increased load of the Europa League in mind. After this minor injury crisis, the possible consequences of this could be telling in the very near future.

The solution

So, how will Puel go about coming out of this period with his side as fresh as possible, whilst also picking up wins? The answer, lots and lots of rotation. This is already Southampton's second batch of stacked fixtures this season, and if the previous one is anything to go by, expect at least half the team to be changed every game.

Besides the backbone of Fraser Forster, Virgil Van Dijk and Oriol Romeu, a player will not start more than two games in a row at most. The three said players are arguably Southampton's most crucial, and so will feature a lot more regularly than their teammates. 

Defender Virgil Van Dijk is set to play more than most over the next three weeks. Photo: Getty.

In addition, Puel will have to be smart about who plays when. Most fans would accept a loss in the EFL Cup, if it allows crucial players to be rested and younger squad members to be given a run out. Similarly, should Southampton lose in Milan, the return fixture becomes vital for the Saints if they want to progress into the knockout stages of the Europa League, and so the strongest eleven would have to be picked for that encounter.

Finally, the question remains; what would be considered a success for Southampton over the next 22 days? It could be debated endlessly. However, if they can start with a win this weekend, which they should do, then the pressure will be relieved a little. The squad may be depleted and the fixture list intimidating, but if Southampton can get some momentum going, then they have every opportunity of passing this latest challenge with flying colours