Ever since that 6 – 1 humbling at the Emirates in the season they gained promotion back to the Premier League, a clash between Southampton and Arsenal has assumed a much more serious outlook on the fixture list, and this one is very much a top four decider.
Those eight goals scored against Sunderland mean the Saints currently hold a +5 goal difference advantage over us and so, a draw would still keep us behind them.
Koeman’s team have shoved their way into contention for European places this season despite losing a great bunch of a magnificent team last year, but failure to take a point from consecutive games against City, Arsenal and United in December has raised familiar doubts of their ability to hold on in the pursuit.
For Wenger, he’ll be glad to know his team goes into this game on the back of having taken 22 points from the last available 27 which represents something of a turnaround from an injury-induced early season form which has seen us adjust our title ambitions more than a few times.
The solidity displayed in grinding out two ugly wins would have pleased him but he should know that the Saints possess superior quality than either of the recently faced London teams.
Two goals in two games, including a man-of-the-match role in the win that handed Neil Warnock the sack at Selhurst Park, one man will be looking to sign off in style before he joins Senegal in the African Cup of Nations. He’s already caused us some trouble this season, having won the penalty that got them the equalizer in the League Cup, and it will be a tough test for our defence that has not always reacted well to quick defenders. Koeman now uses Mane in some sort of false-nine role where Pelle drifts inwards to make space for him to run ahead. He did well to evade the off-side trap of Terry and Cahill against Chelsea and will keep Mertesacker on over time duty.
Thankfully, the German will have his trusted ally in Koscielny and would gladly delegate some of that duty to him. We certainly looked a better defensive unit with both back in partnership last week.
The battle of the English
Chamberlain vs Bertrand: It’s a second test for the Ox against an English full-back and he won’t be low on confidence, having had an easy pass against Aaron Cresswell at Upton Park. Chambo has proven himself to be as dangerous as Alexis Sanchez when we race towards the opposition’s area but so has Ryan Bertrand. The on-loan Chelsea defender has played like a left-winger at times this season, even earning a penalty at Burnley (Tadic missed it though) and scoring a sumptuous curler into the top corner with his supposed weaker right foot against Crystal Palace. A rest against Chelsea means he will be the freshest lad on the pitch and would give Chambo a run for his money.
Gibbs vs Clyne:
Two of the best full-backs in the League, pushing to convince Roy Hodgson of their eligibility to take jerseys three and two home on a permanent basis. Gibbs has been simply outstanding this season, and indeed his influence has grown more, with assists and goals. Clyne has hurt us before and will want to do so again. Some still believe he should have been the right back we signed but Calum Chambers will still prove himself as time passes. Alexis’s irrepressible desire to be always involved could mean Clyne will have two men to handle on the day, but he will still be a threat when give the chance to have a go at our defence.
Win, Draw but Not Lose
This is by no account a win or bust encounter. It is easy to look at Chelsea’s persistence to force the win when both met midweek as a template for our own game but where we don’t win, we must not lose. There will be easier games for us, especially when we have more players return. It’d be good, though, that we put in a strong enough shift to keep up the momentum built towards the end of the past calendar year.
And start 2015 on a high.
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