As the second half of the season gets underway on New Year’s Day, the race for fourth place heats up when Southampton host Arsenal at St Mary’s. After a flying start to the season, Southampton go into the clash in possession of the final Champions League place, but with Arsenal now level on points and in hot pursuit.
With three wins and a draw from their last four outings, Arsenal are finding some form after what was a poor start to the season. That improvement has been aided by the easing of a series of injuries that have plagued a defense short on numbers. After Mathieu Debuchy’s return from a three-month absence, Laurent Kosicleny made his latest comeback in an impressively resilient 2-1 at West Ham on Sunday. And manager Arsene Wenger is confident that with less injuries, Arsenal can have an improved second half of the season.
“I believe that there is a deficit between the potential we have shown and the number of points we have,” he said in his pre-match press conference on Monday. “That’s what we want to get right. I feel we were very, very unlucky with the injuries we got. Overall With the number of injuries we’ve had, we’ve survived quite well. But I believe that hopefully in the second part of the season, we’ll have more stability, especially defensively, to be more consistent.”
Critics may point to the fact that a large number of injuries have been a regular occurrence at Arsenal in recent seasons. And the problems remain. Arsenal will travel to the South coast without three of their core midfielders, with captain Mikel Arteta, Aaron Ramsey and Jack Wilshere all still ruled out. There could be a shortage of options up front, too, with Danny Welbeck likely to miss out with a thigh problem and Olivier Giroud serving the second match of his three-game suspension for a red card against Queens Park Rangers on Boxing Day.
Southampton have their own disciplinary problems. Morgan Schneiderlin, who has been strongly linked with a move to Arsenal, was shown two yellow cards in a 1-1 draw with Chelsea at the weekend. The influential midfielder was also missing when Southampton met Arsenal less than a month ago and Arsenal triumphed 1-0 at the Emirates Stadium. That was part of a run of four straight Premier League defeats for Ronald Koeman’s side that had many predicting a quick slide down the table. But they have steadied the ship in recent weeks, taking seven points from the last nine available to continue to ride high.
“Everybody’s proud about the way we played the first half of the season, not only the way but the points we have until now is well deserved and shows that the club is still growing,” Koeman said in his press conference.
Despite Southampton’s lofty position and the prize that a fourth-place finish would bring, Koeman, who will again be missing right-back Nathaniel Clyne on Thursday, insists that he pays little attention to the league table.
“For me it’s not an obsession,” he said. “I look more to how we play. It’s not an obsession because I don’t look at the table every weekend, because that means nothing. Ok, if it’s before the last game of the season then it’s different. But its only half the season, we have to play a lot of difficult games. Tomorrow is a difficult one and after that will come other difficult ones. “
Prediction: The loss of Schneiderlin is a real blow for Southampton, although Arsenal’s midfield is again short of options. When the sides last met, Southampton were undone by losing several players to injury and having to play out the remaining minutes with 10 men, during which Arsenal struck a late winner. A close contest should again be in store, but this time Southampton could hold out for a second-straight credible draw.
Southampton 1-1 Arsenal
Kickoff time: 10 a.m. EST
TV channel: NBC Sports Premier League Extra time
Live stream: NBC Sports Live Extra