Southampton welcome Arsenal to St Mary’s on Sunday afternoon and Ralph Hasenhuttl has got a number of injury problems to deal with.
Just four Premier League games remain before the season pauses temporarily for the winter World Cup in Qatar and Arsenal are in pole position to top the table at Christmas.
Having gone into this weekend’s round of fixtures with a four-point lead over Manchester City and Tottenham Hotspur, the Gunners simply must match or better the pair’s results in the next three weeks to ensure they still lead the way when the competition resumes on Boxing Day (December 26).
The first part of the aforementioned challenge presents itself on Sunday as Arsenal face Southampton in their first return to St Mary’s since that costly defeat towards the end of last season as Mikel Arteta’s in-form side look to make it nine wins in a row across all competitions.
It’s safe to say both teams have gone in opposite directions since their last meeting in April. In fact, despite recording a 2-1 win over Chelsea earlier in the season, the Saints have struggled for consistency since and Wednesday night’s success against Bournemouth ended a run of five games without a victory.
That result came hot on the heels of a 1-1 draw at home to West Ham United, which snapped a four-game losing streak, and this might be a sign that Southampton have turned a corner. However, they have suffered a couple of major injury blows in the last week with both Armel Bella-Kotchap and Kyle Walker-Peters set to miss the visit of Arsenal.
“A hamstring injury. We’ll see how long,” Saints boss Ralph Hasenhuttl said of Walker-Peters, as per Hampshire Live. “There’s a lot of blood so if there’s a tendon involved we don’t know yet, but it was this long step he made to the ball and tried to to make this safe and this was the moment where the injury can happen.”
In addition to the former Spurs defender, Tino Livramento has been ruled out of Sunday afternoon’s clash as he recovers from an anterior cruciate ligament injury, whilst the game is likely to come too soon for midfielder Romeo Lavia to return to action, despite taking part in a training session.
“Bella [Armel Bella-Kotchap] is still out as we know and will take a little bit, we’re not so sure how long,” Hasenhuttl added. “Romeo [Lavia] is back in training but after such a long time, it will take a long time for him to be match fit. It’s good to see him back training with the team so this is a positive.”
Of course, as per Premier League rules, Ainsley Maitland-Niles is ineligible to face his parent club having joined Southampton on loan on transfer deadline day back in September and this means he makes it five players Hasenhuttl won’t be able to select for the visit of Arsenal.
Speaking of the versatile 25-year-old, Arteta refused to rule out the prospect of Maitland-Niles still having a long-term future in north London – but only on one condition: “Obviously he [Maitland-Niles] won’t be able to play against us and he hasn’t played that much,” the Spaniard said.
“Hopefully he can get the minutes, he can pick up some momentum as well because we need him to play the games. The future he has right now is his present, the most important thing for him to get his place and start to perform at the level that he can.
“That’s something now for his manager to answer because he’s not with us. He needs to focus in the present which is the most important thing for his future.”