Charlie Austin will not necessarily start Southampton's momentous game against Inter Milan at the San Siro, manager Claude Puel has confirmed.
The striker has been in fine goal scoring form so far this season and has been pivotal for the Saints during their ongoing unbeaten run. A brace in the 3-1 victory against his former side Burnley yesterday was another reminder of his ability to consistently find the net.
Yet despite his impressive record in the early stages of the campaign, the 27-year-old may find himself out of the side for Southampton's third Europa League group stage game, away to European giants Inter this Thursday. With yesterday's win marking the start of a torrid run of fixtures for the club, Puel has stated that he is hesitant to start the English marksman, as the number of injuries to key players grows by the match.
Austin's fine form
After beginning his Southampton career in a dramatic blaze of glory last January by scoring a late winner away to Manchester United just minutes after coming on for his debut, Austin spent much of his first half-season on the South Coast in the treatment room.
One or two eyebrows were raised when manager at the time Ronald Koeman took a chance on the proven, but injury-prone, forward. When Austin failed to add to his debut goal throughout the remainder of the campaign, thanks to some poor-finishing and being regularly side-lined by hamstring and knee problems, these critics seemed to have been proved right.
However, after a slow start at the very beginning of the new season, Austin has thrived under new manager Puel, scoring seven times in his last six appearances. His predator-like instincts in the box, combined with usually lethal finishing make him a handful for any defence, much to the delight of the Southampton faithful, who are now seeing why the club took the risk with the then QPR striker in January.
Interestingly, in the last five games in which the Saints have found the net, Austin has scored the first goal of the encounter. His evident ability to break the deadlock, something that Southampton have constantly struggled to do over the last few years, is another facet of his game which is invaluable to his team.
So, with all this in mind, what possible reason could Claude Puel have for dropping Charlie Austin for one of the most important and significant games in Southampton's recent history?
The packed fixture list
As a result of their European commitments, Southampton are currently faced with the unfamiliar task of playing midweek football regularly. With Austin's ugly injury history still fresh in the memory, Puel has hinted that he may be forced to bench his main goal-scoring threat on Thursday.
The Frenchman admitted that "it's important he doesn't play all the games from the start", before acknowledging that "it is important you don't lose Charlie". This cautious method may not come as a surprise to many, as Southampton's injury-hit squad was depleted further against Burnley, with left-back Matt Targett adding to a growing injury list.
Clearly, Puel believes that starting Austin in Italy may not be worth the risk. Even in such an important game for his side, the fact that "Charlie is not an endurance player", and that it is "not possible" for a player to start "all the games every three days", may lead Puel to giving his leading striker a rest on Thursday.
If this is the case, then fellow frontmen Nathan Redmond, Shane Long and Jay Rodriguez will have large boots to fill, but if Southampton are to keep their place at the top of their Europa League group, it is a match they cannot afford to lose, with or without Austin.
Austin for England?
On a separate note, Puel has expressed his optimism that it won't be too long before more of his players earn themselves an England cap. Talking about Austin and Redmond, Puel stated that "they have good qualities" and that he "would like selection" for all of his players.
Currently, only left-back Ryan Bertrand and goalkeeper Fraser Forster regularly get the chance to swap the red and white stripes for the three lions.
However, if Southampton's good form continues, a call from Gareth Southgate (or whoever is in charge) is surely just around the corner for Austin and many of his colleagues.