LONDON • Ronald Koeman claims Southampton are ready to slug it out with the Premier League's heavyweights after producing one of the best performances of his reign.
His side climbed to seventh in the table on 17 points, after a 2-0 victory over local rivals Bournemouth on Sunday that showcased the creativity and intelligence of a squad approaching the peak of their powers.
Since arriving on the south coast last year, he has subtly shifted the emphasis from predecessor Mauricio Pochettino's pressing game to a more eye-catching style.
The Dutchman's purist philosophy has been embraced by his players, as Bournemouth found to their cost when they were left flat-footed and bewildered in the first half at St Mary's.
In-form Italy striker Graziano Pelle took his league tally for the season to six after Steven Davis had given the Saints the lead, both strikes coming before the interval.
Said Koeman: "That was the best 45 minutes, maybe the best in more than one year. It was a high tempo.
"We had good ball possession and if you watch the two goals, it is all about a high quality of football."
After clinching a Europa League berth last season, the Dutchman believes his team are ready to challenge for a Champions League place.
"We can be competitive with big clubs in the Premier League, that we know," he said. "We aren't so worried with the table. We know we can beat everyone."
Just a point off and two places below them are Everton, who routed Sunderland 6-2 in the earlier game with four goals in a dizzying 20-minute spell in the second half at Goodison Park.
The Toffees are another side eyeing a top-four finish, particularly with the likes of Chelsea dropping further off the pace following their sixth defeat in 11 matches.
"I thought our attacking play was exceptional," said Everton manager Roberto Martinez. "More than anything, the understanding of how to break down a defence.
"Sunderland came here with a clear idea of being very difficult to break down and then try to hit us on the counter-attack and I thought the way we coped with that was very impressive."
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS