Oct 7 (Reuters) - Southampton's unlikely rise to fourth in the Premier League encapsulates a start to the season that is making the race for the title one of the most entertaining and unpredictable in years.
Following a two-week break for World Cup qualifiers, the Saints will travel to champions Manchester United on the back of three straight victories and five clean sheets in seven outings, a remarkable effort for a side spending just its second season back in English soccer's top tier after a seven-year absence.
A trip to Old Trafford is one that many teams fear but given United have already lost three league games under new manager David Moyes, including a 4-1 thrashing by Manchester City, the south coast club will head north with a renewed sense of optimism and expectation.
"I always look forward to this kind of pressure in my career, it is what I thrive on, what I relish," manager Mauricio Pochettino said after his side's 2-0 win over Swansea City on Sunday.
"The players need to be a lot more self-demanding, very ambitious and learn how to withstand the great expectation that is being placed on them."
Southampton are not the only team ignoring expectations, with Arsenal, buoyed by the record-signing of German playmaker Mesut Ozil, sitting on top of the league after a rare goal from Jack Wilshere secured a point at West Bromwich Albion.
Arsenal had been expected to struggle, but have not lost a match since the opening day defeat to Aston Villa and lead Liverpool on goal difference at the Premier League summit.
It is a sign of the progress being made under Brendan Rodgers that the Liverpool manager was upset with his side's 3-1 win over Crystal Palace on Saturday.
"I was probably as disappointed as I've ever been because we played counter-attack football and we didn't keep the ball so well," the Northern Irishman told the club's website (www.liverpoolfc.com).
Tottenham Hotspur's 3-0 home loss to West Ham United and Manchester City's reverses to Cardiff City and Aston Villa have reinforced the message that nothing can be taken for granted.
Everton are also going well, starting the season with a six-match unbeaten run, which included a win over Chelsea, and Hull have surprised many by taking 11 points in their opening seven games to sit one place above Manchester United in the table.
"I think the league will be open until the end," Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho said.
"Some teams are being helped by the fixtures, because some fixtures are more difficult than others. I think Manchester United had the most difficult ones, playing at home against Chelsea, away against Liverpool and Manchester City.
"Some other teams not so much. By the end of November, beginning of December, everybody basically played everyone and then we will find someone in a better situation than others. But I believe this is a situation that could go all the way with big doubts about positions and that is good."
Not all are convinced that the early-season pace-setters have the quality to last the distance, however.
"People are saying it is the most open Premier League for years but, as far as I am concerned, the favourites at the start are still the favourites - the two Manchester clubs and Chelsea," former Liverpool defender Alan Hansen told the BBC.
"Early on in the season, teams will start slowly and others like Southampton start really well. The table only starts to tell a story when we are 15-20 games in," former Wales striker John Hartson added. (Editing by John O'Brien)