(Reuters) - Southampton fans should not be downhearted about their prospects for the season after a dismal opening day defeat but should steel themselves for a battle against relegation that may go the distance, former Saints favourite Francis Benali says.
Ralph Hasenhuettl's side took the lead at Tottenham Hotspur last Saturday but were quickly pegged back and conceded four times to lose 4-1, meaning it was a fifth straight loss for the club including results from the end of last season.
Many bookmakers have Southampton as fourth favourites to go down, which would end a decade in the top flight. However, ahead of Saturday's home clash against Leeds United, former tough-tackling full back Benali said rational thinking was needed.
"There's a lot of optimism around this time of the season, but that can quickly shift into a negative reaction when you're on the back of a heavy defeat like we were on Saturday at Tottenham," the 53-year-old told Reuters in a telephone interview.
"I think there's clearly areas that have got to be improved. The defending wasn't good, some of the goals we conceded (the players) weren't good enough...
"But I think it's maybe just ingrained in me as a player and just having that mindset of knowing it's a long slog and these things, as we've seen before, can often come down to the last day of the season and I've been in that position myself personally.
"So it's very much hoping for the best, but in some ways preparing for the worst."
Benali, who made more than 350 appearances for Southampton from 1988-2004, experienced a number of relegation battles but never once suffered dropping out of the top flight.
His stamina has no doubt helped him in his post-playing career to complete multiple marathons and Ironmans for charity.
A Daily Mail report on Thursday said Southampton's squad, whose average age is 25, were growing frustrated with the approach of Hasenhuettl who is starting his fourth year at St Mary's.
It said some players were surprised the Austrian was not sacked in the close season after Saints finished the campaign having lost 10 of their final 13 matches in all competitions.
The club instead overhauled Hasenhuettl's coaching staff and Benali said it was a big season for the manager but the match against Leeds, who stayed in the Premier League on the final day of last season, was not necessarily a "must-win".
"I wouldn't say must win because, as we know, it's a long old season and you're not going to get relegated after the first couple of games. So nothing's defined at this moment," he said.
"But clearly you've got to look at these kind of matches and look to get wins, especially at home. It's fixtures (like these against similar sides) where you've got to be picking up points."
With this year's World Cup in Qatar being played in November-December, Benali reckons the mid-season break could result in a number of results upsetting the odds.
"You probably look at that and think 'Okay, who's that going to benefit? And who's it going to be a little bit of a disadvantage to?'" he added.
"It could be one of those seasons that is just completely flipped on its head. That's the joy of the sport."
(Reporting by Christian Radnedge; Editing by Ken Ferris)