Saints’ form post-lockdown has been superb – unbeaten in six, one defeat in eight, and all of a sudden a team that was a relegation candidate at the half way point of the season is just four points from the top half.
Sheffield United’s run since the return is quite the opposite, with winless runs at the beginning and end of the resumption all but ending their European dreams.
For both of these teams there is nothing tangible to play for. Neither will qualify for Europe, neither will be relegated and both manager’s have very secure futures.
But this match might just be a hint of what is to come for both of these side’s next season and whether or not this run of form will carry on to the next campaign.
Attacking duo Moussa Djenepo and Sofiane Boufal remain absentees for Southampton, but Yan Valery has recovered from a muscle complaint to be in contention, but remains unlikely to start the game.
Jan Bednarek could return to the side after missing the 2-0 win at Bournemouth, but with Yannik Vestergaard and Jack Stephens brilliant in that victory, a place in the line-up is no formality.
For the Blades, Chris Wilder has no new injury concerns but will be again without Lys Mousset. John Fleck has been fit enough only for the bench in the last two games and could start again.
Next season begins early
Sheffield United have been simply fantastic this season, from the beginning, and just about to the end. For Southampton, their season started off with more bumps than would have been hoped, but has ended in emphatic fashion.
The meeting of the two in the final week of the season will provide each manager with a measuring stick, and indication of where their team stands.
For Ralph Hasenhuttl, has the team’s end of season run proven that development is on track? For Wilder, is the end of season rut something that might continue going forward.
The fact that both of these sides were tipped by many to either go down or be very close to it shed an interesting light on this fixture. Where three other teams will be playing for survival this weekend, the Saints and the Blades will already be in holiday mode.
Both managers have built their team on high-energy, highly-committed football and demand effort from their players, breeding a culture throughout the club and are hence seen as long-term leaders for their respective football clubs.
Both teams have been out of the top division for extended periods this century, and both are now arguably in their strongest position this century. The winner will lay down a marker for September’s season start, while the loser will be left with much food for thought.
The golden boot race
Danny Ings has netted six times during Project Restart and three times in his last four, now sitting two goals shy of Jamie Vardy atop the golden boot standings – 23 versus 21.
Southampton’s no.9 has been a revelation on the South Coast, scoring nearly half the teams goals and has finally enjoyed the consistent run of fitness and goalscoring that he missed during his time at Liverpool.
If not for COVID-19, Ings would surely be recovering from a Euro 2020 campaign with England and will look to be in contention again come next summer.
A golden boot on his shelf will aid that particular case, and the case of him being the man to fire Southampton back into Europe in seasons to come.