Evening all. So we resume our chase for the Premier League title when we welcome Southampton to Emirates stadium in a couple of hours’ time and after a poor January points-wise, a win tonight has become all the more important.
We secured just five points from four league games last month; losing to Chelsea, drawing at Liverpool and Stoke, and managing only to take all three points from our home game against Newcastle.
And after playing the Saints, we travel to Bournemouth before hosting league-leaders Leicester City in our other two Premier League games in February – far from an easing-looking fixture-list, but one Arsene Wenger says he feels confident in tackling:
The [coming weeks] can be pivotal but not decisive. They will give a clear indication of the strength of the teams and who can cope with the importance of the games. At the end of the day somebody will win and the team who will win has to go through the important games with strong performances. It’s a big month for us. I am quite confident, having everybody available, that we can do very well. What is important now is for us to be capable of focusing and coping with that kind of expectation level. I don’t feel that we have really struggled recently because we had two difficult away games with Stoke and Liverpool and we didn’t lose. We had a bad result against Chelsea and of course, if you put the three results together, it looks like we’ve struggled but overall the Chelsea result is under special circumstances. If you take the history of our season, we started with a defeat against West Ham and the way we responded and where we are today shows that this team has the capability of responding under pressure. I’m sure that we will show that in February.
Hopefully starting tonight. We owe Southampton a beating after they won 4-0 the last time the two sides met on Boxing Day, but if I remember correctly, this fixture last season was a very close contest and it took us 88 minutes or so to score the only goal of the game through Alexis Sanchez.
To be honest, I’d be happy to win by a similarly slender score-line tonight and Arsene says his team are eager to put right that big loss at St Mary’s in December by producing a ‘strong performance’:
They gave us a tough game last time and we have to put that right. It is a very important time in the season as we go into big, big games and have 13 matches to go. They were dominant in the challenges and the duels. We just came out of a very tough game at Man City, and maybe didn’t have the urgency to cope with that. We were a bit unlucky with three goals on the decisions of the referee as well. The message [this time] is that we play at home and we want to put things right and put a strong performance in because the strength we show at home now in the remaining games can be decisive. The defeat against Chelsea was very unlucky, because our performance was right – it was not a Southampton performance. Our performance, our energy level, our commitment and the quality of what we did was very good. It is an encouragement. Sometimes you have to raise a little bit above the result and keep the positives. In that game there were a lot of positives.
Which is right. In the loss to Southampton we simply weren’t at the races and were soundly beaten by the better team on the day, whereas against Chelsea, the early dismissal of Per Mertesacker and our subsequent display with a man less shouldn’t have affected us confidence-wise.
In terms of the team tonight, I’m guessing Mertesacker will return in place of Gabriel having served his one-match ban for that red card against Chelsea, but at the same time wouldn’t be surprised to see Laurent Koscielny given a breather with the Brazilian starting alongside Per instead.
Further forward, Aaron Ramsey should partner Francis Coquelin in midfield, Mesut Ozil will surely start ahead of them, as will Sanchez on the left, but the right flank and up front remain a little more uncertain now that we have increased personnel options.
Personally I’d go with Joel Campbell on the right and Olivier Giroud up top but the boss could conceivably select Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Theo Walcott in those positions respectively. We’ll see.
Right, not long until kick-off now and the line-ups should be announced soon so I’ll leave it there.
Back on Wednesday.