Southampton can move six points clear at the top of the Championship if they beat Bristol City at St Mary's tonight, cementing their status as favourites to regain the Premier League place they lost in 2005.
Promoted from League One last season thanks to a late run of 13 wins in their final 15 games, Nigel Adkins' side have carried on where they left off in an impressive opening half of the season. The big question is whether they can stay the course and follow the example of Norwich City, who reached the top flight this season after back-to-back promotions. Adkins, manager since September 2010, knows what it takes to earn promotion after leading from the front, having done it with Scunthorpe United in League One in 2006-07.
"I said at the start of the campaign that if we can get to January in the top 10 then we'll have an opportunity to win the race," he said. "We've led for the last three months, which shows that we've been consistent and have the hunger to be promoted back to the Premier League. We will be promoted back to the Premier League, but will it be this season? Time will tell."
But if he is cautious in considering the future, Adkins is not surprised by his team's showing so far. "No, we've got good players, good team spirit, and we play football the right way, I believe. We do try to pass the football but we try to do it effectively. There's no point passing for the sake of it."
It has worked best at St Mary's, the 2-2 draw with Blackpool on 10 December being the first match they had failed to win at home since a FA Cup fourth-round defeat by Manchester United in January. Their Achilles' heel is their record on the road, where results, including a 2-0 defeat by this evening's opponents on 26 November, have been average at best. They visit both West Ham and Middlesbrough, their closest pursuers, in the new year, but Adkins insists that performances away from home have been as good as at St Mary's.
"In any competition, when you're playing the leader, you automatically up your game and performance levels, so that has happened," he said. "Teams come to St Mary's with a game plan to unsettle us, but we've done very well [there] and we've done very well away from home – when you analyse the games we've lost, we should have won all four. We had enough chances."
Significantly, one of the defeats, against Doncaster Rovers, came in the absence through injury of striker Rickie Lambert, a £1m signing by Alan Pardew, Adkins' predecessor, from Bristol Rovers in August 2009. The 29-year-old has dispelled doubts about his ability to produce at the higher level with 17 goals in all competitions this season, including two hat-tricks.
Arguably the best testament to the club's prospects was the decision of Adam Lallana, the England Under-21 winger, to sign a new contract last January, claiming that he felt that he could fulfil his ambitions at St Mary's, while other Saints academy products Theo Walcott and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, both now with Arsenal, took a short cut to the Premier League.
"You have to play to your strengths, and passing is our strength, and I think we are getting better at it the more comfortable we become," Lallana said. "Rickie up top is an unbelievable target man, but he can play as well, which he has proved this season, and if we need to mix it up we have that option. We haven't picked up as many points away as we'd like but, in an inconsistent league, we have managed to be unbelievably consistent at home."