Nigel Adkins has warned his side of a backlash when Southampton travel to Aston Villa this weekend.
The Villans have lost three and drawn one of their last four Barclays Premier League fixtures, shipping 17 goals in the process.
Their hopes of reaching the Capital One Cup final suffered a blow in midweek when they were beaten 3-1 at League 2 side Bradford City in the first leg of their semi-final.
Their recent run of form means they go into Saturday’s game just one point and one place above Saints, and with the worst defensive record in the top flight.
However, Adkins says he is expecting Paul Lambert’s to fight back strongly at Villa Park on Saturday.
“They’ll be a wounded animal after that defeat against Bradford in a game they’d have been expected to win,” said the Southampton manager.
“They are on the back of a poor defeat, but they could have scored a few goals early on and that might have changed the whole complexion of that game.
“They are a very attack-minded side and a young side who play open, attractive football. If chances come their way, they are a threat.
“They’ve got a massive threat up front in [Christian] Benteke – you can see the aerial prowess he’s got in the penalty area, just as we’ve got in Rickie Lambert.
“They are at home and you are expected to win your home games – there’ll be 40,000 Aston Villa supporters wanting them to do well, so their energy levels will be very high.
“We’ve got to go there on top of our game and with a positive attitude, just like we did when we played Stoke away. When our chances are presented, we’ve got to put them away.
“The players have been on a good run of form, so the confidence is there – we’re going to Villa Park confident, strong, fit and with a desire to get three points.”
Adkins will be without Adam Lallana for the trip to Villa Park, with the midfielder still ruled out with the knee injury he suffered against Reading just over a month ago.
Lallana is joined on the sidelines by defender José Fonte, who picked up a knee problem of his own in Southampton’s FA Cup defeat to Chelsea last Saturday.
However, the gaffer expects his options to be boosted by the return of Gastón Ramírez and Nathaniel Clyne, who both missed that game against the Blues.
“The lads are in good spirits,” said Nigel. “I would have liked Gastón and Nathaniel to have been available for the last game but they just missed out on that.
“We had a really good training session this morning so I’m pleased about that. They looked sharp and bright, and they’ve put themselves forward for selection for the weekend’s game.
“We’ll take one game at a time,” the manager added of Lallana’s continued absence.
“He’s running around, which is important, and he has a rehabilitation programme that he’s following. We’ll take one game at a time and, when he’s fit to play, he’ll play.”
Of Fonte’s injury, Adkins said: “We’ve got an exceptionally good medical department here so we know we’ll get him back as quickly and as safely as possible.
“The last thing you want to do is put anybody out earlier than possible and make them break down. You want to make sure that when they’re back, they’re back for the rest of the campaign.
“We’ll take one game at a time and, when he’s ready, he’ll come back – if he can get back in the team when he’s fit!”
With Fonte out, Jos Hooiveld is ready to step into the breach and form a new partnership with Maya Yoshida having seen his playing time limited with Saints’ continued defensive improvements in recent months.
And Adkins insists Dutchman Jos is a more-than-capable replacement for Fonte: “I must say, when Jos played against Stoke over the Christmas period, he was outstanding.
“Jos and José did ever so well last season in the Championship, and they started the season in the Barclays Premier League.
“Jos is probably a little frustrated at having not been in the team of late, but it’s been a good, growing partnership between Maya and José.
“Jos has been working very hard and he’s ready and waiting for his opportunity. That opportunity has now presented itself, so he’s got a good game playing up against Benteke this weekend.”
Some have suggested that Fonte’s absence will force Saints to seek defensive reinforcements with the January transfer window now open.
However, Adkins insists that the Club’s recruitment process will not be influenced by injuries.
“It’s fair to say that we’ve always looked to improve our squad of players through the January window – and whether José going off on a stretcher has heightened that or not is irrelevant,” he said.
“I’m sure there’s massive speculation out there. Like in the summer, it’s fair to say that a lot of players have been scouted and lots of conversations go on.
“Until someone signs on the dotted line, it’s best to avoid speculation as much as you can and concentrate on the players you’ve got.
“It’s better to keep your cards close to your chest and keep conversations private – we’ve done that notoriously well at Southampton because we don’t want things to be done publically and via the media.”