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Transfer Rater: Paco Alcacer to Southampton

Football Whispers
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 By Alex Crook

Claude Puel must take some risks to save his job at Southampton

The biggest criticism levelled by Southampton fans at manager Claude Puel this season is that he is too cautious, and that cautiousness could plunge him closer to the sack at Middlesbrough on Saturday.

Though a meaningless clash between one team already doomed to life in the Championship and another who struggle to score goals will hardly set pulses racing, for Puel it represents once last golden chance to save his job.

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It is unlikely football fans across the globe will be flocking to their TV sets to catch a glimpse of events at the Riverside Stadium, nor will newspaper sport editors be reserving too many column inches to chronicle what unfolds.

But for Puel it is the opportunity to prove to his bosses and those supporters, who have clearly run out of patience with the Frenchman, that he is still the man to take Southampton forward.

Sadly, judging by Puel's response when asked if he would turn to fit-again Charlie Austin to solve Southampton's scoring woes, it is a path he is unlikely to take.

Surely this is the perfect game in which to reintroduce Austin to first-team football; a match against one of the two worst teams in the league when the rest of your strikers have seemingly forgotten how to hit the back of net.

If Manolo Gabbiadini was still banging in goals for fun, as he did at the start of his Saints career, you could understand Puel's decision to ignore Austin. But he isn't.

If substitute Shane Long and Jay Rodriguez were grasping their opportunities to impress from the bench, then maybe they would deserve to be picked ahead of Austin. But they aren't.

If Austin was not still Southampton's top scorer despite spending five months on the sidelines, then Puel would perhaps be right to bring him back slowly. But he is. What does that say about how much his team have missed him?

Scoring woes have plagued Claude Puel's Saints this season.

It is not like Austin is being nursed back from a career-threatening knee problem. His legs have been in full working order throughout his rehabilitation and there is not as much chance of suffering a repeat of his dislocated shoulder as there would be had he been out with a ligament or muscular injury.

Austin says he is fit and, like any player worth his salt, is desperate to get back out into the competitive arena.

Having failed to win any of their past five games -- four of them without scoring -- Southampton and the under-pressure Puel are in need of a lift, the type of boost a fresh Austin can provide for the final three matches of a season that is meandering meaninglessly to its conclusion. A conclusion that looks certain to end in Puel being relieved of his duties.

However much Puel insists he is not fighting for his job, a parting of the ways is looking more and more likely by the day. As stories surfaced this week that Southampton have been sounding out Hull's Marco Silva about the prospect of replacing Puel, the noose tightened a little more.

As Southampton once again failed to score at home in Wednesday's 2-0 defeat to Champions League-chasing Arsenal, another line was added to Puel's obituary as Saints manager.

The continued silence from the Southampton board in the wake of the Silva headlines should be telling Puel all he needs to know about his long-term employment prospects.

Puel's paymasters might even have allowed themselves a wry smile when French news outlets reported that he is wanted for a return to Ligue 1 with St Etienne. They are probably tempted to offer to pay for his flight home.

That is why he should go for broke and put his faith in Austin, before it is too late.

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

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