They have been the surprise package of the early season, but Southampton's challenge to stay among the league's elite takes on a steeper road starting Wednesday when they face Aston Villa without top goalkeeper Artur Boruc.
Boruc has been a key contributor to the Saints (6-4-3) hovering near Champions League and Europa League spots through the first third of the season, conceding only eight goals - fewest among first-choice 'keepers - and trailing only Tottenham's Hugo Lloris and Everton's Tim Howard with six shutouts. But manager Mauricio Pochettino will have to move forward without the Polish standout for at least six weeks after he broke his hand on a collision with the goalpost early in the second half of Sunday's 3-1 loss at Chelsea while stopping a shot by Demba Ba.
Pochettino lamented his absence, as well as midfielder Morgan Schniederlin, who left due to injury shortly after Boruc, as the Saints - currently seventh in the table - now return home trying to regroup at St Mary's Stadium and avoid a third consecutive defeat.
"In the second half of the game we were correcting many things and I think we were carrying the weight of the game well," Pochettino said. "Then we conceded and it all went a bit pear-shaped for us because of Boruc's injury and Morgan going off as well. Overall, there were many factors that were out of control and went against us in the end."
Paulo Gazzaniga is expected to make his first start of the season in this match after conceding twice without making a save in the final 32 minutes versus Chelsea. The Argentine made nine starts for the Saints in 2012-13, going 3-3-3 with one shutout, and one of those wins came against Aston Villa. He made two saves after conceding a first-half goal to Darren Bent in Southampton's 4-1 victory in the corresponding fixture.
Aston Villa (4-4-5) are riding a four-match unbeaten streak into this match following a dour scoreless home draw versus Sunderland on Saturday. Villa have a win and three draws during their run, which has pushed them into mid-table at 11th with 16 points and given manager Paul Lambert cause for optimism going forward.
"The thing is we're sitting where we are at the present and if you look at the teams we've played and our points return it's pretty decent," he told the team's official website Monday. "We're in 11th and there are some big clubs down below us. It's about how you look at it.
"In fact, everything about us is better than it was last season."
The Villains have done well on the road thus far, claiming points in five of six matches with two wins and three draws. They have gone unbeaten in four outside Villa Park, splitting points in the last three matches.
Ricky Lambert - Southampton's joint-leading scorer with four goals - proved to be a menace to the Villains last season, scoring three goals to help the Saints pull off a double last season. He scored twice and assisted on a third in the second half of last season's 4-1 home victory and then converted from the penalty spot in the reverse fixture, a 1-0 triumph at Villa Park.
Southampton have won four on the bounce at home, taking 14 points from their six matches at St Mary's.