Just a couple of points from their last three Premier League games has seen Arsenal surrender top-spot in the table and raised concerns as to their title challenge.
A 2-1 victory over Burnley in the 4th round on Saturday maintained Arsenal’s hopes of retaining the FA Cup for a third straight season but, perhaps more importantly, it also saw several key players back in action. Alexis Sanchez started his first game since November, Francis Coquelin was back to anchor the midfield after more than two months absence and Tomas Rosicky saw his first action of the campaign with 20 minutes from the bench. There was also a full debut for new Egyptian signing Mohamed Elneny in midfield.
It enabled Arsene Wenger to rest a number of first-team regulars against the Clarets and also ensured that a number of peripheral players secured game-time as we enter the business end of the season. Other than the suspended Per Mertesacker and the injured trio of Jack Wilshere, Santi Cazorla and Danny Welbeck, Wenger has the rare luxury of a full squad at his disposal.
Gabriel is a perfectly able replacement for Mertesacker at the heart of the Arsenal defence and the return of Coquelin is a major boost in front of the back four.
Having been eliminated from the FA Cup in the 3rd round, Southampton had the weekend off. In truth they now have relatively little to play for over the remainder of the season, aside from perhaps challenging for fifth spot and a Europa League place that doesn’t appear to be a particular incentive to many clubs anyway.
They do come into this game in fine form though, having won their last three matches without having conceded a goal. Prior to that, Southampton’s form had been a cause for concern with just one win in their previous 10 games in all competitions. It was a fairly emphatic win though, beating Arsenal 4-0 at St Mary’s on Boxing Day.
New recruit Charlie Austin (a bargain buy, albeit on a lengthy and very lucrative contract) must be a strong contender to start for the Saints, having scored within eight minutes of his club debut after coming off the bench at Old Trafford.
Anything less than three points here would seriously damage Arsenal’s title aspirations. Southampton can be difficult opponents to break down, but in the likes of Mesut Ozil, Sanchez, Olivier Giroud, Theo Walcott and Aaron Ramsey, Arsenal possess the creativity and firepower to match just about anyone in the Premier League and should prevail here and avenge that festive mauling.