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 By Alex Crook

Virgil van Dijk the key to Southampton's Premier League surge

Fraser Forster is bidding to etch his name in the Southampton record books against Chelsea on Saturday, but if he does so, the England star should share the plaudits with former Celtic teammate and current Southampton centre-back, Virgil van Dijk.

Forster has not had to pick the ball out of his net in six appearances since making his comeback from a 10-month knee injury nightmare. If the giant goalkeeper can reach the 34-minute mark without conceding against the soon-to-be former champions, he will eclipse Paul Jones' tally during the 2000-01 season of 666 top-flight minutes without his goal being breached.

There is no doubt Forster's return from his untimely lay-off has been one of the main factors in Southampton's amazing march from mid-tale mediocrity to the cusp of the European places. Manager Ronald Koeman has even spoken of launching a late push for a Champions League spot.

However, the contribution of the defenders in front of the ex-Newcastle United youngster -- and the almost impenetrable Van Dijk in particular -- should not be down-played in the club's remarkable turnaround after a dire run of one win in their previous 10 outings.

Barring a man of the match display in Southampton's 0-0 draw at title-chasing Arsenal, the hard truth is Forster has had very few meaningful saves to make during his journey towards Saints' folklore.

But with their regular No. 1 back in the side, the Southampton back-line have suddenly rediscovered the self-belief and inner confidence which appeared lacking during their 10-match plummet down the table.

While captain Jose Fonte has bought his usual calm authority and Ryan Bertrand has impressed, whether it be as part of a back-three or as left wing-back, it is Van Dijk who has been the standout performer.

Southampton goalkeeper Fraser Forster, far right, has gotten a big hand from centre-back Virgil van Dijk, left, during his clean sheet streak.
Virgil van Dijk and Fraser Forster have been imperious for Southampton in recent weeks.

Discounting an uncomfortable afternoon up against Manchester United teenage sensation Anthony Martial that saw United beat Saints 3-2 soon after Van Dijk's arrival from Scotland, it is difficult to pinpoint too many performances from the big Dutchman which have been anything short of excellent.

The reassuring presence of Forster between the sticks has allowed the £13m summer signing to take his game to a new level, even exacting his revenge on his nemesis Martial in Southampton's 1-0 win at Old Trafford.

At a time when both United and Manchester City are experiencing difficulties in the centre-back areas and as Chelsea begin to plot life without John Terry, it would be no great surprise if Van Dijk does not become the latest Southampton player to be targeted buy the so-called elite clubs.

You have to question why in the days of expensively assembled transfer committees and state-of-the-art scouring systems that Van Dijk was not on the radar of those clubs when Southampton prised him away from Parkhead.

At the time of his departure, some Celtic supporters questioned whether Van Dijk would be able to make the step up to the Premier League from the Scottish equivalent, highlighting some less-than-convincing European displays. But his performances for Koeman's side have already silenced any doubts.

With his exceptional mobility, almost telepathic reading of the game and the perfect combination of power and pace, not to mention an impressive scoring record when sent up to attack set pieces, Van Dijk has all the attributes to become an established star at the very highest level of the game.

At the still relatively tender age of 24, the 6-foot-4 Van Dijk also has the peak years of his career ahead of him.

That is why if or when Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich takes his seat in the directors' box at St Mary's, he may be paying as much attention to the colossus at the heart of the home defence as to his own team of under-performers.

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


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