Southampton are back in action at St Mary’s on Monday night, as they welcome Tottenham Hotspur in a top-of-the-table Barclays Under-21 Premier League clash.
Martin Hunter’s side recovered from a brief slump in form to see off the challenge of Watford last week, booking their place in the Under-21 Premier League semi-final in the process.
Now, back in the league, Saints sit just two points and two places above Spurs, who also have two games in hand on Monday’s hosts.
After losing 3-2 at White Hart Lane in the reverse fixture back in September, Hunter is anticipating another tight encounter when they meet Ugo Ehiogu’s team again, but won’t allow his side’s focus to slip with the prospect of silverware on the horizon.
“We’ve obviously met them earlier this season at White Hart Lane – that was a close game – so we’re expecting a close game at St Mary’s on Monday. They obviously pass and move very well, they’ve got some technically good players, so it’ll be a very interesting and tactical match-up,” he told Southampton’s official YouTube channel.
“The league game comes first. We play Derby (in the semi-final) on March 5th so we’ll get ourselves ready for the league game. We’re all looking forward to the semi-final, but let’s get the league game won first.”
Midfielder Dom Gape has been a mainstay of Hunter’s team so far this season, and has been one of a number of youngsters to have made the step up to Ronald Koeman’s team in recent months.
After completing another session with the senior squad, Gape spoke of his experience within a first-team environment and reckons the time he spends training with established top-flight performers is aiding his development as a player.
“We’re really pushing as a whole squad, and fortunately at this club, there is an opportunity where you get to show what you can do. If we keep performing in the Under-21s, the manager here will have you training with them and you get a chance to show what it’s about,” he explained.
“It’s an excellent experience. The first team are obviously flying high at the moment, they’ve got some great players, so to play against them and to learn from them is something that really helps your development as a player.
“It gives you confidence when you do things well, and because we’ve got a good Under-21s team, we’re all technical and we can all cope when we go up, which is a confidence boost.”
The Dorset-born schemer is also wary of the threat posed by Spurs who, somewhat predictably for a side coached by a former England centre-half, have conceded the second fewest number of goals in the division so far this season.
“Knowing the manager there, pretty sure they’ll be a high pressing team with lots of energy, and we’ve got to combat that. We’ve got to look different ways where we can play against that, and hopefully we can be successful,” said the 20-year-old.
“It’s a very, very competitive league. We did well last year to qualify for the better group, and I think it’s good for all us players to challenge ourselves against the best, and it is important for us to get the three points, keep pushing Chelsea and keep trying to get top of the league.
“That’s what you want as a player – you want to be playing in the technical games where it’s two good teams. You want to play against the best players in England and that helps you develop as a player and get ready for when you come and train with the first team or try to push for the next stage.”
Back-to-back defeats against Chelsea and Everton had seen Southampton surrender their place at the summit of the table.
But the character shown to bounce back from that, Gape says, will help prevent a repeat of that plunge in form.
“We had a few tough games, we didn’t get the results we wanted and we didn’t have the performances we wanted, which is the most important thing. So we’ve put that behind us, and we’ve come together as a team as we showed against Watford and it was a good learning curve, and we’ve just got to make sure that it doesn’t happen again,” he said.
“It’s going to happen in their careers,” agreed Hunter. "You’re not going to get many seasons when you’re going to get everything your own way, so it’s being able to cope in adversity, being able to make decisions under pressure which in those games they didn’t do, so hopefully they’ve learned from that and it will develop them even further.”