TONY PULIS has warned Stoke City that their final game of 2012 will be the toughest one of the Christmas programme . . . as he tries to diffuse some of the euphoria surrounding their Boxing Day triumph over Liverpool.
Pulis' side will be aiming to extend their nine-match unbeaten run when they face Southampton at the Britannia Stadium on Saturday after consolidating their position in the top half of the Barclays Premier League table.
A victory over the Saints would take City to 31 points, more than three quarters of the way to their initial 40 points target.
But while the manager wants to get to that target as quickly as possible, he has struck a cautionary note ahead of the match.
"Southampton will be our toughest game of the week because of the expectation levels following this result," he said.
"We'll need everyone to be up for it, players and supporters alike, which is not always easy after a big game like this.
"We'll be drumming that into the players over the next couple of days and we need the fans right behind us once again.
"I'm sure that Southampton won't half fancy their chances in those circumstances and they'll come here off the back of a good point at Fulham where they were perhaps unlucky not to have won the match in the end."
Pulis has been impressed with the way Southampton have overcome a difficult start to life in the Premier League and now have a fighting chance of staying in the top-flight for a second season after recent performances.
"I watched them earlier in the season and they played really, really well," he said. "They move the ball forward quickly and they've got goalscorers.
"Southampton have already caused one or two surprises and they have the spirit and commitment which gives them every chance of surviving."
Pulis will be forced to reshuffle his defence for the Southampton game with captain Ryan Shawcross and Geoff Cameron suspended.
Both Shawcross and Cameron will be serving one match bans after picking up their fifth bookings of the season in the Liverpool game.
Those who are likely to come into contention are England defender Matthew Upson and Academy product Ryan Shotton.
"We've got a strong group here and so this presents a chance for others in the squad," commented City's manager.
"There are some who have been waiting for an opportunity and it's up to them to take it, just as Kenwyne has done recently."