Wednesday 20 June 2018

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Saints still alive and kicking – Hughes

Arsenal 3 Southampton 2

Peter Cech and Shkodran Mustafi can only look on as Shane Long scores for Southampton. Photo: Bryn Lennon/Getty Images
Peter Cech and Shkodran Mustafi can only look on as Shane Long scores for Southampton. Photo: Bryn Lennon/Getty Images

Jeremy Wilson

There was enough fight here from Southampton, both during the game and in Mark Hughes's subsequent press conference, to inspire hope that all is not yet lost, even if the wider truth is of a club dropping ever closer to the Championship.

Having gone ahead, Southampton ultimately left the Emirates Stadium empty-handed at the end of a see-saw match that included two red cards, five goals, 43 shots and one angry melee.

Charlie Austin described as "madness" the injury-time bust-up in which several players squared up and Petr Cech rushed 30 yards from his goal to restrain Jack Wilshere.

Hughes claimed that Wilshere should also have been red-carded for aiming a knee at centre-back Jack Stephens, who himself had just been dismissed for lashing out at the Arsenal midfielder.

"If you're going to send Jack (Stephens) off, you have to send Wilshere off for bouncing up," he said. "I thought I saw a definite movement with his knee towards Jack."

Arsenal also finished the match with 10 men after Mohamed Elneny was punished for shoving Cedric Soares, but Stephens will be more acutely missed for a Southampton team now in increasing danger of returning to the Championship.

Arsenal's Calum Chambers shoots at goal. Photo: Tony O'Brien/Action Images via Reuters
Arsenal's Calum Chambers shoots at goal. Photo: Tony O'Brien/Action Images via Reuters

A sequence of just one Premier League win since November leaves them three points adrift of safety, albeit with noticeably more optimism than after losing 3-0 at West Ham United last week.

Hughes said that there has been a "marked improvement" in the performances while Austin, who scored with his first touch, believes that there is now good reason to believe.

"When you asked me last week I definitely didn't see a path (to safety) but today I did," he said.

"We've all got to stick together and we've got to go to war. If we do, we can definitely stay in this league."

Southampton manager Mark Hughes. Photo: Tony O'Brien/Action Images via Reuters
Southampton manager Mark Hughes. Photo: Tony O'Brien/Action Images via Reuters

Priorities

Arsenal's own priorities were immediately clear both from the team selection and the sight of further swathes of empty seats at the Emirates.

The Europa League, where they lead 4-1 going into Thursday's second leg quarter-final against CSKA Moscow, has become such a priority that arguably their six most important outfield players were all rested.

Aaron Ramsey and Laurent Koscielny were not even named among the substitutes, while Alexandre Lacazette, Wilshere, Mesut Ozil and Nacho Monreal all took their places on the bench.

Southampton made changes for very different reasons following their dreadful performance against West Ham, with Hughes opting for a more solid 5-4-1 formation that saw Shane Long operating as the main central striker.

His team still played with genuine adventure on the counter-attack and they were soon rewarded.

James Ward-Prowse released Cedric who, having got past Saed Kolasinac, crossed into Arsenal's six-yard area.

Both Cech and Shkodran Mustafi thought the other would deal with the danger and their hesitation was exploited by Long, who darted in front of the Germany centre-back to put Southampton ahead.

It was hardly a classic but, when you are scoring only your second goal in 47 games, that is perhaps inevitable.

It prompted a response from Arsenal and, within 11 minutes, the game was again level.

Alex Iwobi and Danny Welbeck had exchanged passes, with the latter producing a quite exquisite flick to release Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang.

He was still running into a mass of Southampton bodies but his pace seemed to surprise the defence and he duly converted his sixth goal in only seven Premier League games.

Iwobi was then again instrumental in releasing Welbeck, who cut inside Stephens before being fortuitous in having his shot deflected off Maya Yoshida and past goalkeeper Alex McCarthy. It was Welbeck's first goal in 17 Premier League matches.

Arsenal are not quite as loose with a lead as Saints, but they are not much better.

Missing chances to go 3-1 up early in the second half, they started to let their visitors back into the game.

And when Hughes sensed the moment and threw on Austin, Saints were level again within seconds.

Yet, it took more passive Arsenal defending to wave them through: Cedric exchanged passes with Tadic and ran into the box, Chambers stood and watched as Austin turned in the cross unchallenged.

Southampton had 17 minutes to find an unlikely winner, a goal to change their whole season.

But the more men they threw forward, the more space they left at the back. And Arsenal had the quality to exploit it.

First Iwobi crossed the ball to Wilshere, who set up Welbeck, who missed an open goal.

But the next time they made no mistake. Iwobi outmuscled Tadic, stood the ball up to the far post, where Welbeck leaped above Cedric to head home his second goal.

This time there was no Southampton comeback. They had nothing left in the tank and Cech had only one simple save to make from Tadic.

Saints' last hopes were extinguished when Stephens was sent off for shoving Wilshere to the floor after having his shirt ripped into two by him.

In the ensuing scuffles, Elneny was also sent off. Not that Arsenal will mind: their focus is firmly on the Europa League and winning a place in next season's Champions League.

(© Daily Telegraph, London)

Telegraph.co.uk

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