Southampton are a very good team. Sitting in seventh place, the Saints are just a point behind Tottenham, just outside the Europa League places. After a great start to the season, the talk quickly shifted from relegation to Champions League for Ronald Koeman's side, but eventually the Saints came back down to earth.
Some of the slide should be chalked up to the loss of goalkeeper Fraser Forster. Since he went down on 21 March with a knee injury, Southampton have lost four of six matches. Forster still leads the league in clean sheets, with 14. Another blow to the squad was losing defensive midfielder Morgan Schneiderlin. Since taking a proverbial arrow to the knee, the Saints lost their two most recent matches -- to Leicester City and Sunderland. Even without these two key pieces, they still have a very formidable squad and shouldn't be taken lightly despite the poor recent form.
One reason for the success enjoyed by Koeman's team has been the defence. Ryan Bertrand (you may remember him) and Nathaniel Clyne had fantastic seasons out wide, and José Fonte, Toby Alderweireld and Maya Yoshida have all been dependable central defenders. Even though they can't rely on Forster between the sticks, Southampton's back four is capable of preventing goals from even the best strikers in the league...
Which may be bad news for Aston Villa, if Christian Benteke wasn't in the middle of a great patch of form. Saving the club from relegation is seemingly a yearly task for the Belgian, but it's one that fans hope won't have to be repeated in the future. Tim Sherwood seems to have turned the club around, and his team didn't even need a Benteke goal to win last week against West Ham. Tom Cleverley has also hit a rich vein of form, and Jack Grealish is just the creative outlet that this side has been searching for the past few years. Victor Wanyama will be tasked with stopping Grealish, although it's more than a one-man job. Last match he was partnered by 20-year-old Harrison Reed, the latest budding star from the great academy down on the south coast. The revival of the midfield has been key to Villa's improved style of play. Fabian Delph and Ashley Westwood, along with Cleverley, make up a very balanced unit in the centre of Sherwood's side. They, along with Villa's defenders, could be challenged by Southampton's attacking midfielders.
Out wide, Saido Mané and Eljero Elia are tricky wingers to stop. Villa's fullbacks - Kieran Richardson and Leandro Bacuna - aren't exactly world renowned for being great defenders. They offer a lot going forward, but their defensive skills could be put to the test in this match. Centrally, Ron Vlaar and Jores Okore will have their hands full with Dušan Tadić and Graziano Pellè. Both were signed last summer after the fire sale, and they've combined for 15 goals and 10 assists.
The last two meetings between these teams have been draws. I'd say that whichever team sees more of the ball will win, but in December 2013, Villa had 29 percent possession and won 3-2. Wide midfield could be the key area, and if the creative players can get the better of their defenders, it will open up some chances.
Paulo Gazzaniga; Nathaniel Clyne, José Fonte, Toby Alderweireld, Ryan Bertrand; Victor Wanyama, Harrison Reed; Saido Mané, Dušan Tadić, Eljero Elia; Graziano Pellè.
Aston Villa (4-3-3):
Shay Given; Leandro Bacuna, Jores Okore, Ron Vlaar, Kieran Richardson; Tom Cleverley, Ashley Westwood, Fabian Delph; Charles N'Zogbia, Christian Benteke, Jack Grealish.
Do you think Sherwood should keep the same lineup? Let us know in the comments!