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.
– Walcott ‘ready to play’ –
Podolski has been linked with a move to Inter Milan once the January transfer window opens, but Wenger has declared that an Italian exit is not an option for the World Cup-winner.
“He is a player of Arsenal Football Club and I want him to stay,” he said. “I hope that he will still be an Arsenal player at the end of January. Inter? That is a joke. Inter is not serious.”
Midfielder Aaron Ramsey remains sidelined by injury, but former Saints starlet Theo Walcott could feature, although he is not yet match fit following a lengthy absence due to a serious knee injury.
“Walcott is involved because he was already in the squad,” Wenger said. “Of course I judge him a bit short on the competition front, but on the fitness front he is ready to play.”
Southampton have selection dilemmas of their own as defensive midfielder Morgan Schneiderlin, a player thought to be on Wenger’s radar, is suspended following his dismissal in the Chelsea match for two bookable offences.
That will put the onus on Victor Wanyama to protect the defence and the Kenya international believes that Southampton cannot expect any of their opponents to underestimate them anymore.
“Now everyone knows what we can do,” said the former Celtic player, whose side have gone three league games without defeat following a sticky patch in late-November and early-December.
“At the beginning, nobody gave us a chance. We deserved three points against Chelsea and were unlucky. There was a foul before they got their goal.
“We are at home so we need to have the same spirit and hopefully we can get a good result.”