Southampton defender Jose Fonte pleased to make group stage

Southampton defender Jose Fonte

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Southampton defender Jose Fonte insists qualifying automatically for the Europa League group stage is a huge bonus to the squad in terms of fitness.

Saints enjoyed a strong Premier League campaign in 2015-16 as they finished sixth and subsequently ensured they would gain a place in the Europa League group stage.

The south-coast club were forced to enter last season’s competition in the third qualifying round where they saw off Vitesse Arnhem 5-0 on aggregate in July.

Ronald Koeman’s men fell at their next hurdle in the play-off round after suffering defeat to Midtjylland and subsequently saw their hopes ended early.

The Premier League side will avoid having to return to pre-season early this time around and can relax safe in the knowledge they will have a full group stage in which to show their ability.

Fonte, who is busy this summer with Portugal at Euro 2016, believes it is a huge boost to be able to take a break after the European Championship so they can return fresh ahead of their club campaign.

Fonte said: “I think it’s massively important that we don’t have to go through the qualification rounds.

Otherwise the players involved in the European Championship wouldn’t get a lot of time off in the summer to recover.

“We wouldn’t have had time for holidays and that would have meant coming back in early for everyone.

We can now have a little bit of time to rest and prepare much better for the new league season to ensure we start it fresh.”

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