SOUTHAMPTON: Arsenal will hope to begin the new year by reclaiming the top-four position in the Premier League table that has traditionally been theirs.
Arsene Wenger’s side travel to Southampton on New Year’s Day in the knowledge that victory at St Mary’s will see them leapfrog their hosts into the Champions League places.
But Southampton, who drew 1-1 with leaders Chelsea on Sunday, will be determined to defend their position and Wenger has admitted he had not foreseen 2014 ending with the south-coast club so high in the standings.
That was mainly because Ronald Koeman, installed as manager during the close season, had to make a series of buys to replace a host of departed stars.
No fewer than five players who had helped fire Southampton to a surprise eighth-place finish left the club, but newcomers Sadio Mane, Graziano Pelle and Dusan Tadic have all made instant impacts.
“He has done a remarkable job,” Wenger said of former Netherlands star Koeman, who left Feyenoord to take over from Mauricio Pochettino. “He has done very well and bought very well. He gets them to play very good football.
“They were the surprise because there was a big exodus there at the end of the season last year. They did very well, unexpectedly, because they’ve benefited from the stability at the back and in midfield from last year.
“They added Mane, Pelle and Tadic, who have done very well very quickly. That’s why they are where they are.”
Arsenal recorded victories over fellow London clubs Queens Park Rangers and West Ham United over the festive period, but will take on Southampton without the suspended Olivier Giroud, who was sent off against QPR.
And with England striker Danny Welbeck a doubt because of a groin problem, little-used Germany forward Lukas Podolski may get a rare run-out.