By Ossian Shine
LONDON (Reuters) - Winded by a third successive defeat, Southampton must patch up a suddenly leaky defense when they host free-scoring Manchester City on Saturday.
The once-meanest back line in the English Premier League has now conceded eight goals in the last three matches.
Two of those defeats came at the hands of league leaders Arsenal and second-placed Chelsea, and if Saints are to arrest their drop to eighth place in the league they will need to slam on the handbrake against third-placed City.
A priority for Saints' Argentine manager Mauricio Pochettino will be to organize his defense to protect third-choice keeper and compatriot Paulo Gazzaniga from the English league's most prolific attack.
With Polish stopper Artur Boruc out with a broken hand and back-up Kelvin Davis still injured, Saints suddenly look vulnerable and Pochettino's task will not be made any easier by the absences of Kenyan midfielder Victor Wanyama and key defender Nathaniel Clyne, both injured in the midweek loss to Aston Villa.
"Of course injuries always change your plans, your outlook, but we need to keep on believing," Pochettino told Southampton's TV service SaintsPlayer on Friday.
"We need to keep on working, keep on believing like we have been doing."
Despite the run of defeats, 2-0 at Arsenal, 3-1 at Chelsea and 3-2 at home to Villa, Pochettino says his highly regarded Saints team have not become a poor side in a matter of days.
"(Against Villa) we had lots of possession... but defensively we were not tight at the back and we have been punished for that," he said.
"The performances of the team have been good. The results not so good, but we have played well, we stuck to our guns, but just the results did not go our way," he said.
In contrast to Southampton's three successive defeats - their worst run under Pochettino - City are on a roll with three consecutive victories, their best run under Manuel Pellegrini.
Argentine Sergio Aguero has scored 16 goals in his last 14 appearances for City in all competitions, including 10 in his last nine league games.
One chink of hope for Saints, though, is City's dubious away form. The division's top scorers (40 in 14 matches) have won just two games on their travels in the Premier League.
Neither will they have to contend with playmaker David Silva, whom City confirmed would not be fit for the match.
Pochettino, however, takes little comfort from the statistics.
"It is clear we will be facing a great side with incredible players. We are not just discovering this now - we know this already," he said.
"When we don't have possession we need to pressure their inside game. We need to be able to press and neutralize them to cut their supply to dangerous players.
"I believe every game is a large test for us, not just Manchester City. Nothing has changed within this team. It still believes.
"What a great chance for us to invert this negative run, in a great stadium in front of our fans. It is a great chance to reverse our fortunes.
"I am confident we can put a stop to this bad run. We have a chance to bring in some younger players now, and execute the plan we have at Southampton."
City boss Manuel Pellegrini believes Southampton will be a handful and that his team must repeat their midweek performance when they took all three points from West Brom.
"I was absolutely sure the reason why we weren't winning away was not due to tactical problems," Pellegrini told reporters. "I am also sure that the squad has the confidence to continue playing the way we are playing.
"Pochettino is a great manager and someone who I know very well. I'm sure he is going to play with a strong team," he added.
"It's not good for any team to lose and I don't know what happened to them recently, they have a young team and a young manager. But they have a lot of good players; it's a very good side."
(Editing by Ed Osmond)