By RYAN WILLOX
(AP) -- LONDON (SE) - Southampton host Sunderland at St. Mary's on Saturday in what is already shaping up to be a critical match in the battle to avoid relegation this season.
The Saints lie in 17th place, outside of the relegation zone on goal difference only ahead of Wigan Athletic, who are four goals worse off. Saturday's opponents, Sunderland, are just one point ahead of both Southampton and the Latics.
Saints boss Nigel Adkins has reiterated the importance of taking points at home if his side is to beat the drop.
"Every game has its own challenges and merits," Adkins told the club website. "We've always highlighted the need and desire to win home games, especially against teams that are close to you in the division.
"The next game is Sunderland which, akin to the Reading game, we'll be looking to win - as they will be. It's going to be a tough game. Having watched Sunderland myself, they have good, talented football players."
Adkins is hoping Southampton (4-3-9) can take advantage of the busy festive schedule, in which his side plays four games in 11 days, to propel themselves up the table.
"At the beginning of the season we played the top eight in the first ten games, and we're now playing teams that are around us in the division," he said. "When you look at Norwich, who were at the bottom of the league at the start of the campaign, you can get yourself on a run with back-to-back victories because the league table is so close that it can change quite a lot.
"There's four-or-five games over the Christmas period so I'm sure the league table will change constantly"
Black Cats defender Carlos Cuellar is under no illusions as to the importance of Saturday's game. Sunderland (3-7-7) have secured just one away win all season and come into this match off a 3-1 loss to Manchester United at Old Trafford.
"I am looking forward to playing there and this is one of the most important games so far this season," he told the club website. "Southampton are a direct rival for us and we need to win with some other good games coming up.
"I think the team are ready and mentally strong. The second half against Manchester United - we need to try and find that from the first minute. If we can do that then not many teams will beat us. The other players know that and everyone is ready for this weekend."
Saturday will be the side's first meeting since they clashed in the Championship in the 2006-07 season with Sunderland taking four points. The Black Cats won 2-1 at St. Mary's and drew 1-1 at home. The Saints equalizer that day came from Gareth Bale, who scored in the last minute at the Stadium of Light.
The last Premier League meeting between the sides was in January 2003. James Beattie scored the winner in a 1-0 Saints victory.
This will be the 56th all-time meeting between the sides, who first met in the third round of the 1931 FA Cup, a match Sunderland won 2-0 at home.
Sunderland has been fouled more than any other side (222 times) this season in the Premier League. Southampton has been fouled the fewest (135).
Updated December 20, 2012