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 By Alex Crook

Southampton boosted by good form but must be wary of West Ham

It is a mark of how far Southampton have progressed over the past four weeks that nobody was surprised to see them take four points from visits to Manchester United and Arsenal.

But the biggest test of their Europa League aspirations might still be to come when Ronald Koeman's side entertain West Ham on Saturday.

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In days gone by, victories at Old Trafford were hard to come by, but Koeman could not have picked a better time to face old rival Louis van Gaal, with United lacking confidence in front of a potentially toxic home crowd.

Even match-winner Charlie Austin claimed United were "there for the taking" before coming off the bench to score the only goal in a memorable 1-0 triumph on Jan. 23. 

Tuesday's 0-0 draw at the Emirates also pitted Southampton against Arsene Wenger's title hopefuls at the perfect moment, with Arsenal having failed to win in their previous three outings and starting to show some title race jitters.

It might have required an outstanding individual display from goalkeeper Fraser Forster and a spirited performance from the visitors, but the outcome of the game was in line with the present Premier League form table.

After ending a miserable record of one win in 10 matches with a comprehensive 3-0 victory at home to Watford last month, Southampton have taken 10 points from a possible 12 and have gone more than six hours without conceding a goal.

Fraser Forster
Fraser Forster made 11 saves as Southampton won a point at Arsenal.

It is a run which has got supporters dreaming of a repeat of last season's Europa League qualification and a win over West Ham could prompt the forming of a queue outside the Southampton passport office. However, in some ways the Hammers are a more formidable opponent than either United or Arsenal in their present state.

Slaven Bilic's men are sitting pretty in sixth, only a point behind Manchester United. West Ham also have a five-point cushion over seventh-place Southampton, which Koeman will be anxious to reduce, especially as only the top five teams are guaranteed a ticket to Europe.

Koeman loves a tactical battle with opposing managers, as he proved by out-witting his nemesis van Gaal and clashing with Wenger during a reported post-match tunnel row. Adding Bilic to the list of conquests will depend largely on stopping the supply line from the excellent Dimitri Payet.

The Frenchman's return from injury has coincided with West Ham rediscovering their brilliant early-season swagger and the Southampton defence are going to have to be on top form to extend their run of clean sheets.

The one criticism of Southampton from the stalemate at the Emirates was the failure to take the few clear-cut chances that fell their way, with Sadio Mane again showing wastefulness in front of goal.

The Senegalese speedster has all the attributes to be as good a player as Payet but, unlike his opposite number, is too often let down by his end product, as is illustrated by a run of 14 Premier League matches without finding the net.

Koeman will be hoping bargain January buy Austin shrugs off the minor injury which forced him to sit out the Arsenal clash -- and how the former QPR man would love to silence Hammers owners David Gold and David Sullivan.

Following Austin's move to the south coast, Gold questioned how much of a bargain the 4 million signing was, suggesting his high wages offset the low fee. Last August, Sullivan pointed out that Austin once failed a medical at Hull and so would be a risky buy.  

Whatever Austin is earning, it will be money well spent if he can help Koeman's side finish above West Ham and in the European places.

Alex Crook is ESPN FC's Southampton blogger. Follow him on Twitter @alex_crook


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