By Martyn Herman
SOUTHAMPTON, England (Reuters) – It requires a warrior spirit to thrive in the heat of a Premier League relegation battle and fortunately for Southampton, Maya Yoshida is well-equipped with survival skills.
Things have rarely been smooth for the 30-year-old defender since he arrived from Dutch club VVV Venlo in 2012 but no other Japanese player has appeared more times in the Premier League.
After forcing his way back into the Southampton team recently, he is set for his 141st Premier League appearance for the club when they host Tottenham Hotspur on Saturday.
With Southampton two points above the bottom three, a visit from third-placed Spurs, managed by former Saints manager Mauricio Pochettino and with prolific England striker Harry Kane leading their attack, is a daunting prospect.
But Yoshida never shirks a challenge and said he would “fight to the last” to preserve Southampton’s top-flight status.
Asked what being Japan’s most prolific Premier League appearance maker means, Yoshida is typically modest but is proud nonetheless. “It’s not a very big contest!” he told Reuters at Southampton’s plush training complex on Thursday.
“It’s the most difficult league in the world and every six months the club has a huge budget to replace me, but I have to survive and prove I’m good enough.
“Last week it was (Manchester United forward Romelu) Lukaku and this week it’s Harry Kane, and in a few weeks its (Liverpool’s) Mohamed Salah. It’s like playing a Playstation game. But it’s fantastic.
“That’s why I want to be here.”
Yoshida has seen six managers come and go at St Mary’s and at various times has been below the likes of Toby Alderweireld, Jose Fonte and Virgil van Dijk in the pecking order.
Despite playing a key role in Southampton’s relegation scrap last season, the Japanese again found himself on the fringes at the start of the new campaign under Mark Hughes.
After German coach Ralph Hasenhuettl took charge of Saints in December, Yoshida got a run in the team but following the Asian Cup he again found himself demoted before returning to the side for last month’s vital win over fellow strugglers Fulham.
He then played in an unlucky 3-2 defeat at Manchester United last week — and is determined to lead the team from the heart of defence in Southampton’s final nine games.
“I’m hungry to keep playing football in the Premier League,” Yoshida, speaking on behalf of club sponsor Virgin Media to launch the Super Saints fans initiative, said.
“I’ve missed matches because of the Asian Cup, and I didn’t play a long time at the beginning of the season under Mark Hughes. That’s painful and I don’t want to miss any more.
“You feel helpless when you’re not in the team.”
Yoshida played in Japan’s loss to Qatar in the Asian Cup final on Feb. 1 before returning to a relegation battle in which steely nerves are needed and there is no space for egos.
“We have to sacrifice for the team and help each other,” he said. “If we have an ego on the pitch, we will be in trouble.”
Spurs have won 10 of their 13 Premier League games with Saints since the south-coast club were promoted back to the top flight, but Pochettino will not be in the London club’s technical area on Saturday because of a touchline ban.
Yoshida played down any suggestion that would tip the balance of the game Southampton’s way.
“That team has played a long time together and they understand the vision and the philosophy of Pochettino,” he said. “If we cause them some trouble, ask some different questions, it could work for us though.”
Nagasaki-born Yoshida insists Southampton are in a better place than last season, saying the high-intensity style Hasenhuettl prefers has been taken on board by the squad.
“He has a plan and a vision that we didn’t have for such a long time and now we have a manager to show the direction that we need to follow,” he said.
Southampton’s less experienced players also have a leader on the pitch who they can count on when the going gets tough.
“Maybe I don’t roar like a lion but I understand what needs to be done,” he said. “I’m not Cristiano Ronaldo who scores three goals every game but I’m trying to lead by example.”
(Reporting by Martyn Herman; Editing by Ken Ferris)