Previously, Arsène Wenger has spoken about the two divisions within this season’s Premier League.
The upper half, he believes, will battle for the European places; the bottom half will battle to stay up.
The extremities of the former group meet at St Mary’s on Tuesday night during another round of fixtures that exude possibilities.
Before the FA Cup sojourn at the weekend, Wenger described how an “interesting gap” between Chelsea in third and Liverpool in fourth had just started to splinter the tightest (and biggest) of leading packs.
|Arsenal: Ramsey (doubt - thigh), Sanogo (back), Walcott (knee), Diaby (knee)
Southampton: Wanyama (doubt - ankle), Lambert (doubt - hamstring), Lovren (ankle), Ramirez (ankle)
There may be more fissures this week with Manchester City going to Tottenham and a Merseyside derby on Wednesday evening. On paper, Arsenal’s Tuesday-night trip to Southampton is not far behind, though the gap has widened since Wenger’s men beat Mauricio Pochettino’s outfit at Emirates Stadium on November 23.
Going into that game Southampton were three points behind leaders Arsenal; now the margin is 20.
In many ways that game was a watershed for the south-coast side. They had only conceded five goals in 11 games before it, they have let in 20 in the same period since.
Southampton come into this game ninth but Wenger retains respect for what they have done this term.
“Southampton are above the expected [level] and the quality of their displays has been very good,” said Wenger.
“Everybody who goes today to Southampton knows that they will get a difficult game. That's why we want to focus on being at our best because Southampton is a game where you want to take the points but you know we will need to fight to get them.
“Pochettino has done well because he arrived in a sceptical environment. Nigel Adkins had done a great job before him and it was a surprise to everyone that he left.
“It is never easy when you come in after people have done well before you. But he [Pochettino] has convinced people very quickly that he has the quality to do the job.”
Thomas Vermaelen and Mikel Arteta are likely to return to the squad after recovering from injury. However, despite the desire for rotation, the manager indicated he may not start either.
“They just came back into full training on Monday after being out for three weeks,” he said. “So it's very short.
“But I will change some players because in the last two months we played every three days and it's very important that I get that right on the rotational front.”
It would be poignant if Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain were to start his first Premier League game since the opening day at the club that provided his football education. The midfielder is just one more quality commodity off the St Mary’s conveyor belt.
“They have done a remarkable job with their academy,” said Wenger. “If you look at the quality of the work they have produced in the last 10 years, it has been absolutely amazing.
Everybody who goes today to Southampton knows that they will get a difficult game. That's why we want to focus on being at our best because Southampton is a game where you want to take the points but you know we will need to fight to get them
“They are a club that have produced Walcott, Bale, Shaw, Oxlade-Chamberlain.
“That [quality] explains why they have come up again. They have produced excellent results. There’s Ward-Prowse and Morgan Schneiderlin too.
“They deserve a lot of credit for bring players through early. Perhaps, [they have done the best] at youth level - along with Arsenal.”
With Chelsea and Manchester City kicking off on Wednesday, Wenger’s men can squeeze a little pressure on their main title rivals with a win at St Mary’s.
After this game and Palace (h) on Sunday, Arsenal play Liverpool (a), Manchester United (h), Liverpool (h) and Bayern Munich (h) in three different competitions. In theory, a teak-tough quartet.
It would be disrespectful to Southampton’s season (or indeed a hard-to-beat Palace) to suggest these are more straightforward fixtures before the big guns come out.
But Arsenal’s ability to winkle out wins against the teams outside the top four has insulated them when points have been dropped against Champions League outfits.
If they can combine the two…Copyright 2014 The Arsenal Football Club plc. Permission to use quotations from this article is granted subject to appropriate credit being given to www.arsenal.com as the source 28 Jan 2014