Arsenal could hardly have gone into Christmas in better spirits, following a 2-1 victory over Premier League title rivals Manchester City on Monday. But manager Arsene Wenger has challenged his squad not to allow any complacency to creep in as they prepare to visit Southampton on Saturday.
The win over City, secured courtesy of goals from Theo Walcott and Olivier Giroud, took Arsenal four points above Manuel Pellegrini’s side in the table and just two points behind leaders Leicester City. And it has led to them being ushered in as favorites to lift their first championship in 12 years. Wenger, though, has stressed that his side must be fully focused again on Saturday, despite Southampton coming into the match on a wretched run of form.
“We lost our first game at home against West Ham so we were not absolutely sure that at Christmas we would be two points behind the leaders,” he said in his pre-match press conference. “We have been top of the league many years. Football is pragmatic and nobody can predict what will happen in the next 17 games, for example, so we want to go just with the same attitude and same spirit and earn the right to win the games.
“I believe for us, the most important is we have to focus on ourselves and not to speculate too much on any weakness of Southampton. When you look at their team, they have the potential to be a very strong team. We have to convince ourselves that we again need another top-level performance.”
Wenger has reason for caution going to St. Mary’s. Arsenal have won just one of their last four contests against Southampton, losing twice. Still, while Southampton have become a real force in the Premier League in the past two seasons, Ronald Koeman’s side are now struggling. They have taken just a solitary point from their last five league outings, scoring only two goals in the process. And after last weekend’s 2-0 reversal at home to Tottenham, Koeman is keen for his side to show a more ruthless streak.
“The mood is again good, and it has to be good, because if we're preparing for the next one you have to learn why we lost and take out the positive things,” he told Southampton’s official website. “We have to be more clinical in front and we have to be more ruthless in defending.
“It's a little bit of mentality. I don't mention that they don't like to train, or that they don't fight mean, but I think in several ways it can be a little bit more aggressive, because we know we can play good football.”
With a hectic festive schedule that will see both teams back in action on Monday, there is likely to be considerable squad rotation utilized by both managers. Koeman, who will have goalkeeper Maarten Stekelenburg back but will be without long-term absentees Fraser Forster and Jay Rodriguez, has suggested he will make at least five changes between the clash with Arsenal and Monday’s visit to West Ham. Arsenal will continue to be without Alexis Sánchez , after the Chilean suffered a setback in his recovery from a hamstring strain. Francis Coquelin, Santi Cazorla, Jack Wilshere, Danny Welbeck, Tomas Rosicky and Mikel Arteta also remain sidelined.
Prediction: Immediately after scoring a major victory, Arsenal have certainly been known to slip up in the past. But there appears slightly more steel about this season’s outfit, and they should be able to see off a Southampton side currently on the slide. If there is to be an upset, it is likely to come courtesy of Southampton’s wide men Sadio Mané and Dušan Tadić , who both scored the last time the sides met and can be a real threat to any opposition on their day.
Predicted score: Southampton 1-2 Arsenal
Kickoff time: 2:45 p.m. EST
TV channel: NBC
Live stream: NBC Sports Live Extra