By Rob Kelly at Emirates Stadium
Alexis Sanchez scored an 89th-minute winner to secure a precious three points for Arsenal against Southampton.
A well-contested affair appeared to be heading for a frustrating finish as both sides cancelled each other out, but the Gunners’ patience was rewarded right at the end.
Moments after Olivier Giroud had forced Fraser Forster into a fine save, Alexis converted his 14th goal of the season from close range after good work by Aaron Ramsey.
For much of the match, the two sides had traded blows without managing to find a breakthrough.
Danny Welbeck had an early sight of goal after being played in by Santi Cazorla, but pushed a left-footed shot wide of the near post.
Graziano Pelle then spurned a golden chance for the visitors after combining nicely with Steven Davis, but clear-cut chances remained hard to come by.
Welbeck looked the Gunners’ most likely candidate to break the deadlock and he saw one backheeled effort deflected wide, before coming close with a glancing header before the interval.
The introduction of Giroud just after the hour mark added some much-needed thrust to the attack and he soon tested Fraser Forster with a fierce drive before setting up Welbeck for a firm shot that was superbly saved.
Giroud then saw a looping header clawed away by Forster at the death, before Alexis once again proved the difference with a calm finish to seal the win.
Arsenal march on.
SETTING THE SCENE
Much of the build up to the game had focused on a potential issue at left back, with both Nacho Monreal and Kieran Gibbs injured in Saturday’s victory at West Bromwich Albion. However, both were passed fit and the former took his place in an unchanged back four.
In fact, Wenger only made one change to the side that had played so confidently at The Hawthorns, with the in-form Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain returning to face his former club at the expense of Giroud. It meant Welbeck, fresh from scoring his sixth goal of the campaign, would move inside from the left flank to spearhead the attack once more.
The Saints came into the match on the back of a disappointing home defeat to Manchester City - but they still boasted the meanest defence in the Premier League. And with a side containing the likes of Dusan Tadic - the third highest assist-maker in the top flight - and the dangerous Pelle, they would pose some serious questions in attack as well.
Ronald Koeman’s side had already won at the Emirates in September’s Capital One Cup third-round tie, but this was a very different Gunners line-up that only contained two of the team that started that game.
This would be a more keenly-contested affair and, having won two on the bounce, the hosts hoped to maintain their upward trajectory ahead of a packed Christmas schedule.
After a cagey opening, Arsenal suddenly sprang to life in the seventh minute as Cazorla - the orchestrator of their past two victories - pierced the visitors’ defence with a lovely through ball for Welbeck.
The England international stretched his legs and showed great pace to get there just before the onrushing Forster, but drove his first-time effort wide of the near post.
It was an encouraging start for the home side, but the Saints soon showed their teeth as Pelle combined beautifully with Steven Davis on the edge of the area before firing high and wide from close range. Considering his impressive start to life in the Premier League, it was a real let-off.
Despite these early chances, neither side could get into their stride and it took until the 25th minute for the next sight of goal as Oxlade-Chamberlain brought a sprawling save from Forster.
Southampton’s early-season form had marked them out as serious contenders for a top-four spot, and on this evidence it was easy to see why. They frustrated the hosts with a potent combination of resolute defending and slick attacking play, making this a finely-poised affair.
While a goalkeeping howler had handed the Gunners a goal in the corresponding fixture last season, there were to be no early Christmas gifts this time around.
The Saints were playing with no little confidence, but Welbeck was hardly short of self-belief himself following his goal at The Hawthorns, and he came close to adding to his tally with a backheel that was just deflected wide by Jose Fonte.
The England international then brought a superb reaction save out of Forster right on the stroke of half time with a glancing header, but that was the closest the Gunners would get before the interval.
Both sides traded blows at the start of the second half, with Aaron Ramsey slicing once effort wide before Pelle’s close-range volley was blocked by Laurent Koscielny in the area.
Chances remained at a premium as both sides cancelled each other out, and Wenger opted change the pattern of the game with the introduction of Giroud just after the hour mark.
The France international had scored three goals in his previous two games against the Saints, and his deft touches and physicality made an immediate impact.
Within minutes of his arrival, Giroud powered his way into the area and struck a fierce volley that Forster did well to parry away to safety. Moments later the substitute played a brilliant flicked pass into the path of Welbeck, but the striker’s shot was palmed away by Forster once more.
As the clock wound down into the final 10 minutes, the tension inside the Emirates rose. Would there be another clear opportunity for the Gunners on a night of few real opportunities? Wenger sent on Lukas Podolski for the final charge to an appreciative roar from the home faithful.
The Germany international was straight into the fray but it was his fellow substitute, Giroud, who came closest with a looping header that Forster just about managed to claw off his line.
It looked like a frustrating end to a frustrating night for the Gunners but with just under two minutes remaining they finally made the breakthrough - and once it was through Alexis.
The goal came after Chambers swung in a low cross from the right that appeared to hit the hand of Fonte as he went to clear the ball. But despite the Arsenal protests, referee Andre Marriner waved play on - and Ramsey did just that.
The Wales international leapt on the loose ball, took and touch and rolled it back across goal for the waiting Alexis, who gleefully tucked it home from six yards for his 14th goal of a stellar campaign.
It also secured Arsenal’s third successive victory - and it could not have been more timely ahead of the festive period.
The Gunners are on the move.
Referee: Andre Marriner
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