It has been quite a season for Southampton midfielder Oriol Romeu. Following the high-profile departure of Victor Wanyama to Tottenham last summer, the 25-year-old was forced to take up the task of being the Saints' main man in the middle of the park in the coming campaign.
Fast forward the end of April, and the impacts of the loss of the domineering Kenyan have been limited as much as possible, due to the fantastic performances of Romeu.
Now, with the Spaniard set to do battle with opposite number and PFA player of the year N'golo Kante when Southampton visit Chelsea tonight, Saints manager Claude Puel has expressed how Romeu will be more than a match for the seemingly unstoppable Blues midfielder.
An unlikely star
It would be fair to say that Southampton's acquisition of Romeu from Chelsea in the summer of 2015 went relatively under the radar and didn't exactly thrill the fans on the South Coast.
Sure, he seemed a shrewd purchase who could perhaps do a job of the bench, but his lack of consistent playing time for Chelsea suggested that he wouldn't be all that influential at St Mary's. When at the West London club, he only feature 22 times in four years, and spent half of that time out on loan, being considered a surplus to requirements.
However, from pretty much his debut for the Saints, he has been one of their most crucial characters. While not blessed with the most flawless set of skills technically or a playing style that is easy on the eye, Romeu's innate ability to read the game, combined with a fearless desire in the tackle, see him win back possession time and time again.
Additionally, Romeu's emotional value to Southampton cannot be under-estimated. Always one to where his heart on his sleeve, his unbridled passion and constant encouraging of team-mates make him seem like the side's de facto captain.
After a promising first season at Southampton under Ronald Koeman, Romeu has only improved under Puel, and looks set to win the club's player of the season awards in the coming weeks.
Best in the league?
With Romeu now a regular fixture in the Southampton starting XI, the challenge for him now is to secure his status as one of the best defensive midfielders in the country. However, Puel believes he is already at that level.
Ahead of the encounter with Chelsea, Puel has compared his man to tonight's opponent's own powerhouse, N'golo Kante. Kante has been a Premier League revelation since joining Leicester City in 2015 and, after a move to Stamford Bridge a year later, is set to become just the second player ever to win back-to-back titles in England's top division at different clubs.
Inevitably, Kante's Olympic stamina, tough tackling and deceptive pace have been recognised by his peers as, on Sunday night, he was officially crowned the best individual in the league by scooping up the PFA player of the year award.
Nevertheless, Puel believes that "N'golo is the same quality as Romeu", since both are "important" players who are "difficult for their respective teams to cope without". Indeed, the Saints travel to Chelsea off the back off a 3-0 defeat to Manchester City, for which Romeu was suspended.
Being compared to Kante is high praise indeed for any player, and Romeu does not have to wait long at all to prove wrong those who doubt this notion.
When Southampton play the league leaders tonight, Romeu will have the perfect opportunity to validate his manager's comments, against the very club that didn't seem him as good enough for the highest level.
In a direct battle with Kante, a performance on par with the little Frenchman, as well as an unlikely three points for the Saints, would see him thrusted right up to the top of the ladder of Premier League midfielders.
Yet despite this, following Puel's remarks, the pressure will be on Romeu to live up to the hype but, if his performances in a Southampton shirt to date are anything to go by, this should be something he brushes aside with ease.