Arsenal – Southampton (Premier League)
When the Barclays Premier League started, back in August, few would dare guess that the clash between first and third during this weekend would not be Manchester City versus Tottenham Hotspur, but rather Arsenal versus Southampton. In fact, the South Coast team sit a mere three points behind the Londoners and may even relish the opportunity of topping the table by Saturday evening.
Arsenal have looked an entirely different beast with the arrival of world-class midfielder Mesut Özil, a player that started justifying his price tag on the very first match he played for the Gunners. Despite the (close) defeat at Old Trafford a couple of weeks ago, the team seem to be firing on all cylinders. While there still are some who believe Arsenal may not be in for the long haul and that their form will eventually fade, there is a consistency to their approach – particularly on the defensive side of their game – that wasn’t there for the better part of the past seasons. Mertesacker’s likely return should offer a much-needed strong presence at the back, while the metronomic Mikel Arteta and the ever impressive Aaron Ramsey should offer good passing options to the predictable pressure the back four will be subject to next Saturday. The trio comprised of Jack Wilshere, Mesut Özil and Santi Cazorla will put their opponents’ defensive resolve to the test, but they must make sure they help out their team-mates at the back. The return of Theo Walcott may be reserved for later stages of the match, where his speed, trickery and directness will be welcomed. On the injury front, the returns of Mertesacker and Walcott are evened out by the absences of Podolski, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Sanogo and Diaby through injury, as well as Flamini after collecting five yellow cards.
Probable line-up: Szczesny – Sagna, Mertesacker, Koscielny, Gibbs – Arteta, Ramsey – Wilshere, Özil, Cazorla – Giroud
When Mauricio Pochettino was appointed to replace the heroic Nigel Adkins, less than a year ago, a lot was asked of the Argentinean’s abilities, but Pochettino replied with some aplomb. Southampton made a risky choice, but it has paid off handsomely so far. Not only have they had the best start to any season, but their displays have been consistent and exciting, including victory at Anfield and a last-minute draw at Old Trafford. As the players find their footing in the manager’s tactics and formations, some of them have started to stand out, namely the now well-know Adam Lallana and Jay Rodríguez, but also the impressive Morgan Schneiderlin, who has become a dominant force in midfield and who will surely be instrumental in Southampton’s now familiar high pressing from the front (he has the 4th highest number of tackles and has completed a whopping 80% of his passes in the opposing half). In fact, the team’s high-intensity style may prove the right medicine against Arsenal, a side that are usual bothered by physical approaches that keep them from getting into their passing rhythm. The lead in most ground covered, high-intensity running and fewest shots on target conceded may be helpful explanations as to why the Saints have only conceded five goals in the process of amassing their 22 points. Jack Cork and Guly do Prado will be the team’s only absentees.
Probable line-up: Boruc – Clyne, Fonte, Lovren, Shaw – Wanyama, Schneiderlin – Ward-Prowse, Lallana, Rodríguez – Lambert
This should be a cracker of a match with the two slickest passing teams in the Premier League going head to head. With the competition facing tough fixtures, this could prove a crucial opportunity for Arsenal to distance themselves from the pack and for Southampton to show they mean business. The style and approach of the visitors, who haven’t won at Arsenal since 1987 and have only 2 away wins in the Gunners’ ground, may be the antidote to Arsenal’s virtues. The Saints should give Arsène Wenger’s men a good run for the money, but the really blessed ones will probably be the people watching – on the stands and on the telly.