Friday 15 December 2017

Point gained but Gunners' title challenge stalls as Lallana strikes deserved leveller for Southampton


Sam Gallagher of Southampton takes a shot at goal that is blocked by Laurent Koscielny of Arsenal during the Barclays Premier League match
Sam Gallagher of Southampton takes a shot at goal that is blocked by Laurent Koscielny of Arsenal during the Barclays Premier League match
Arsenal's Olivier Giroud celebrates his goal during the Barclays Premier League match at St Mary's Stadium, Southampton
Arsenal's goal keeper Wojciech Szczesny leaps to save against Southampton during the Barclays Premier League match at St Mary's Stadium, Southampton
Artur Boruc of Southampton dives but fails to stop Santi Cazorla of Arsenal scoring their second goal

Jeremy Wilson

Arsenal's arrival at St Mary's was delayed by heavy traffic and, having been stuck in first gear for most of the match, their Premier League title challenge also suffered a potentially significant stall.

With Mathieu Flamini deservedly sent off and Southampton producing an excellent performance, Arsene Wenger might reason that this was ultimately a point gained, but both Chelsea and Manchester City have been presented the opportunity to move above them tonight.

Given their daunting fixture schedule in February and March, this week had represented a major opportunity for Arsenal to assert themselves at the top of the Premier League and, although they did rally after half-time, an insipid first-half performance ultimately proved costly.

For the first 40 minutes, Southampton were utterly dominant and providing the most effective possible answer to concerns, on what was their first home league game since the departure of chairman Nicola Cortese, that the off-field upheavals would have even the slightest impact on their on-field performance.

In actual fact, they produced arguably their best passage of football all season.

The Saints created a flurry of chances, with Adam Lallana granted enormous space in the Southampton penalty area only for his header to be cleared off the line by Laurent Koscielny.

Southampton took a deserved lead in the 21st minute and, once again, Luke Shaw's excellence on the left flank provided the spark. He showed both pace and strength in sprinting past Serge Gnabry down the left and his high cross seemed to completely disorientate Szczesny.

Jose Fonte had crept forward from centre-back and he also showed more desire in towering over Nacho Monreal to guide his header between Szczesny and the inside of the post.

It could, and really should, have then been 2-0 by half-time. Steven Davis again exemplified the hunger of the Southampton players by charging down Monreal's clearance.

Arsenal had barely ventured into Southampton's penalty area during the entire first half but, with their first shot, in the 45th minute, Koscielny forced Artur Boruc to make an excellent reaction save.

Arsene Wenger had lingered by the tunnel as his players left the pitch at half-time and looked utterly disgusted with the performance.

It can be safely suggested that harsh words were exchanged at half-time and, within three minutes, Southampton's first-half dominance was wiped out.

Bacary Sagna muscled his way in front of Rodriguez down Arsenal's right and his cross was deftly flicked past Boruc by Giroud. It was the France striker's 14th goal of the season. Another four minutes later and Arsenal were suddenly 2-1 in front.

Mesut Ozil had finally got into the game and his pass across the edge of the penalty area was cleverly dummied by Giroud to allow Cazorla to send a slightly soft finish past Boruc.

The tide seemed to have decisively turned but Southampton were again level within seconds of the restart.

Shaw's high ball allowed Rodriguez to get behind Sagna and he showed a calm head to pick out a late run from Lallana, who guided his finish past Szczesny.

Neither team were satisfied with a point and a flurry of chances followed. Ozil's attempted shot deflected off Fonte and onto the crossbar and Monreal then had a further chance to put Arsenal back into the lead but blazed his shot over.

Arsenal were reduced to 10 men for the final 11 minutes after Flamini's reckless two-footed challenge on Schneiderlin and were only spared defeat by Szczesny's wonderful late saves. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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