After the tragic events in Paris and the subsequent security scares in Belgium and Germany, it felt weird that England’s friendly with France was to go ahead.
Yet the solidarity and unity shown just proves that life should go on as normal, and Southampton’s Premier League campaign starts again on Saturday with the visit of Mark Hughes’ Stoke.
The fact that the next international break comes in March means that Saints are heading into the deep, intense Christmas fixture list that could go a long way to defining seasons.
In both Mauricio Pochettino and Ronald Koeman’s first full seasons, the high-intensity style that they favoured took a huge effect after the third international break; injuries set in, and momentum was lost. Yet Koeman may feel much more confident in dealing with the harsh winter this time.
Reverse a year, and four of his star performers from the first half of the season were struggling with tiredness and injury; Morgan Schneiderlin, Dusan Tadic, Graziano Pelle and Toby Alderweireld. Schneiderlin had the double hangover of playing in the World Cup and a troubled pre-season where mentally and physically he wasn’t ready for the season ahead.
Koeman shouldn’t have this problem this time round, with the Euros coming up and the squad fairly settled, Victor Wanyama’s strike in late August aside. The Kenyan’s absence during the difficult start to the season was part of the reason Saints exited the Europa League before the group stage, but it could turn out to be a blessing in disguise, as the squad haven’t been playing more games and racking up high amounts of air-miles in the process.
It is this time of season where the likes of Juanmi, Oriol Romeu and Jay Rodriguez may become really important. The trio haven’t played much in the first half of the season, yet if the likes of Wanyama or Pelle were to suffer injuries; the latter pair would be able to step in and should keep the standard up.
There’s no question that the run of ten fixtures coming up are difficult, however. Going up against Manchester City, Tottenham and Arsenal is a challenge at the best of times; in December when injuries bite, the challenge is five-fold.
Saints shouldn’t fear them though. The momentum generated from good results against Everton, Crystal Palace, Chelsea and Arsenal last Christmas set up Saints for an unexpected Champions League push. The visit to St Mary’s by Tottenham and Arsenal, not to forget the Capital One Cup quarter-final with Liverpool at home, will be games that Koeman and his staff will be circling as big chances to climb up the table and progress to a cup semi-final.
It could be that the Capital One Cup game with Liverpool is the most important of the six games over December, despite no points being on offer. Getting past Jurgen Klopp’s newly-revitalised squad should be a test, but after that, only Manchester City could give Saints a real bruising.
The prize of Europa League football is one that Saints are aiming for again. The wins over Vitesse before the Midtjylland shock gave the fans a real appetite to get back into Europe, following Saints in a way that had been done very few times before.
For the likes of Jose Fonte, James Ward-Prowse and Matt Targett, it was a brand-new experience altogether. Bar Fonte, who had played in the UEFA Cup during a loan spell at Vitoria Setubal, stepping out onto the pitch against European opposition for a club that they had seen rise from the third tier would’ve been a real ‘pinch yourself moment’. But to feel that again, it’s important that the next run of games yield a fairly big number of points, and potentially a cup semi-final. Having Jordy Clasie and Ryan Bertrand, who should be fresher than most going into the festive period, fit and raring to go will help that.
Pelle has been sublime so far this season, and his struggles last winter may be forgotten if he can keep up his goalscoring start to the campaign. If not, Koeman can finally rest him for someone like Rodriguez, instead of completely wearing the Italian out like last term.
With Fraser Forster reportedly not far away from returning, it means that the Saints manager has a pretty good hand of options across the team, bar cover for Cedric. He’ll need them, too. The internationals are out of the way for now, and Saints are lowering themselves into the blocks for the last few hurdles of 2015. A good win against Stoke on Saturday, and the run of games coming will look a lot less daunting.