Virgil van Dijk could play for Southampton again this season, Claude Puel has hinted, despite not featuring since January.
The defender, who is a summer transfer target for Manchester City and Chelsea, was ruled out for up to three months when he hurt his ankle against Leicester City – with a return date pencilled in for May.
And Puel has confirmed his captain is on track to return before the season closes and insisted that his fitness will have no impact on whether Saints hold on to him this summer or not.
"(Van Dijk's) is a long injury and we will see if he can come back before the end of the season.
"The injury does not change anything. He is an important player for us, our captain and it is important he takes this role with good quality, good attitude and good spirit.
"For me he is among the best defenders in the Premier League but he can play with us and we can give him good maturity for the future."
Puel also confirmed he’d spoken to Dusan Tadic after the midfielder accused him of a lack of "respect".
Tadic recently voiced his frustration over the fact he has finished only four of the 20 games he has started under the Frenchman and hinted he was unsure about his future as a result.
He said: "I don't think the coach needs to substitute me, but I deserve more respect.
"I haven't thought about what I'm going to do at the end of the season, now I concentrate only on the national team and Southampton."
Asked if he’d spoken to Tadic about his comment, Puel said: "Yes. All the players can have disappointment after the game. I understand this but we sorted it internally.
"He knows it was not a good response. It is always better to give good answers on the pitch."