Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) - Seemingly every season, a middling Premier League club begins the campaign like a bat out of hell and bears the appearance of a title contender, and seemingly every season, speculation persists regarding whether said club can maintain such pedigree and vie for the top spot, or at least crack the top four.
Southampton has been the Premier League's pretender du jour, winning a handful of matches to occupy an impressive position in the table. But a multitude of unfortunate circumstances leave the Saints on the verge of a quick descent from their third-place perch.
Prior to the start of the season, few identified Southampton as anything more than a relegation candidate. The club experienced a mass exodus as star players Adam Lallana, Dejan Lovren, Luke Shaw and Rickie Lambert all made moves away from St. Mary's, while manager Mauricio Pochettino was prized away from the touchline by Tottenham.
But Dutch tactician Ronald Koeman arrived and made immediate use of his keen eye for talent and intimate knowledge of competing European leagues to minimize the impact of such departures.
Graziano Pelle, Dusan Tadic, Shane Long, Fraser Forster and Sadio Mane all made permanent moves to Southampton, while Koeman also managed to secure the services of defenders Toby Alderweireld and Ryan Bertrand on loan from Atletico Madrid and Chelsea, respectively.
The acquisitions paid immediate dividends as Southampton impressed in its opening league match of the season, despite suffering a 2-1 loss to Liverpool at Anfield.
The response to defeat, though, was outstanding. Koeman's men went on to collect 25 points from their subsequent 10 matches while cruising to the best defensive record in the top flight by a sizable margin.
And with various other Premier League heavyweights making inconsistent starts to the season, the Saints found themselves in second place, just four points off the pace of Chelsea. Analysts, pundits and journalists began suggesting that Southampton could challenge for the title, or at least qualify for the Champions League next season.
Such speculation has proven to be premature as Southampton, like so many early risers in recent Premier League history, has started to crumble.
The strong start to the campaign certainly seems a mirage as the Saints enjoyed a very favorable schedule in the early part of the season.
Only three of the club's eight wins have come against clubs residing in the top half of the table. Even defeats of fifth-place West Ham United and ninth- place Newcastle do not tell the whole story as those two clubs were experiencing considerable turmoil when facing Southampton; the Saints merely managed to eliminate the wounded animal placed in front of them.
The fixture list in recent weeks has not been quite as kind to Koeman's men, who followed a road match at Aston Villa with monumental clashes against Manchester City and Arsenal. The Saints scored just one goal and collected just one point from that three-game stretch, dropping them to third place in the table.
And, unfortunately for Southampton, a couple untimely injuries have coincided with the meaty part of the season.
Morgan Schneiderlin has been an unsung hero for the Saints to date, but the France international was forced off with an adductor injury at halftime of a scoreless contest against City at St. Mary's on Sunday. Schneiderlin's absence was magnified in the second period as the Citizens cruised to a 3-0 victory; the Frenchman's presence in the middle of the park was sorely missed.
Despite Schneiderlin's absence, the Saints managed to hold Arsenal in tact for the majority of Wednesday's contest at the Emirates, but Alderweireld's late injury reduced the visitors to 10 men as Koeman already had used his three available substitutions. Arsenal ultimately found a winner to see Southampton leave north London empty-handed.
Southampton's injury concerns are even more crippling given the lack of depth in the squad, and it may get worse for Koeman's men due to the demanding - both in quantity and quality - fixture list on the horizon.
A home clash with Manchester United awaits the Saints on Monday, and a loss could see them plummet to fifth place, depending upon other results over the weekend.
Things will not get easier over the coming weeks as Southampton is set to face Everton, Chelsea and Arsenal before heading to Old Trafford on Jan. 11 for another meeting with Manchester United.
Following such a difficult stretch of games over such a short amount of time, Southampton's heavenly start to the season will be long in the rearview, and speculation of a top-four finish, in hindsight, will have seemed quite foolish.