In Focus: Saints form could see Fraser Fors his way into World Cup squad
Fraser Forster’s unlikely resurgence this season continued with a man-of-the-match display in Southampton’s 1-0 victory over Arsenal last Saturday.
The goalkeeper made a string of superb saves to earn a hard-fought clean sheet against the top-four chasers as the Saints moved within one point of the Premier League’s top half.
It follows a bright campaign for the 34-year-old stopper, who has resurrected his career on the South Coast and even earned an England recall — his first international call-up in nearly five years.
As Ralph Hasenhuttl's men prepare to face Burnley on Thursday, we turn the spotlight on Forster’s rebirth and assess whether he can gain a place at Qatar 2022.
In from the cold
Just nine Premier League appearances across the three previous seasons prior to this one suggested Forster’s career in the top flight was drawing to a close.
Clearly unfavoured by Hasenhuttl, he was even sent away on loan to Celtic for the 2019-20 campaign.
Another temporary move away had been earmarked for this term, but a shortage of Saints goalkeepers following Angus Gunn’s permanent departure to Norwich meant the ex-Newcastle custodian stayed put at St Mary's.
It has proved to be a saving grace, with an injury to No1 Alex McCarthy seeing Forster come into the starting XI for the Saints' last 15 games.
Taking his chance
He has taken that opportunity with both hands, helping the Saints push for a top-half finish having lost just five of those 15 outings.
His record of 3.67 saves per 90 minutes since his first start on Boxing Day places him fifth among top-flight goalkeepers this term, while he is second for stops made from inside the box (2.8 per 90).
He picked up the third of his clean sheets at the weekend versus the Gunners, and it may have been his most eye-catching performance yet.
The No44 made six saves to deny a barrage of attacks from the North Londoners — including two seemingly impossible stops to deny Bukayo Saka and Emile Smith Rowe from point-blank range.
And after the Saints held on following Jan Bednarek’s first-half strike, visiting boss Mikel Arteta put his side's defeat down to the heroics of only one man.
The Spaniard said of Forster: "[He was] incredible. The saves he made with clear-cut chances was a defining moment.
"They had an exceptional goalkeeper today, and as well we didn’t have enough quality and enough capacity to break them down when we had the numbers and the situations to do so."
Earlier this season, Forster may have already started thinking about his next club as this summer's contract expiry edged closer.
But he has impressed so much since coming into the team, it looks as though his near eight-year spell at Southampton could continue.
When Hasenhuttl was asked whether he would consider renewing Forster’s deal, the Austrian said: "Absolutely, there are a lot of arguments for doing this and I’m sure we’ll find with him a very good solution for the future.
"I was very happy with the way he reacted when he got the chance to play and I think he absolutely grabbed the chance with all his effort.
"This is a very good argument for him, definitely."
Having won the last of his six international caps in a 2-1 win over Australia during a warm-up game before Euro 2016, even Forster himself may have thought he was unlikely to get another chance to play for his country.
But being drafted into last month’s England squad by Gareth Southgate for the friendlies against Switzerland and Ivory Coast has meant earning a place at Qatar 2022 could now be a real possibility.
Replacing injured pair Aaron Ramsdale and Sam Johnstone, Forster will still likely be dependent on the form and fitness of other players if he wants to travel to his third major tournament with the Three Lions.
Current No1 Jordan Pickford and closest challenger Ramsdale seem nailed on for a place at this winter’s tournament if available, meaning it could be a three-way battle between Forster, Johnstone and Nick Pope for the final spot.
Whether the Saints man can overcome that pair could depend on if they secure moves back to the top flight this summer — with Johnstone’s contract at Championship West Brom expiring and Pope facing relegation with Burnley.
Of course, Forster will also have to contend with competition from Saints team-mate McCarthy when he returns from his thigh injury.
But that he is even in the conversation is a mark of a remarkable turnaround in fortunes this campaign.