By Rob Kelly at St Mary’s Stadium
Arsenal made a disappointing start to 2015 as they were beaten 2-0 by Southampton on New Year’s Day.
Having enjoyed a strong festive campaign, the Gunners came into the game in confident mood but were given an early warning when Graziano Pelle twice went close in the early stages.
Santi Cazorla then had a big chance but scuffed his shot from 10 yards out, before Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain sliced one just wide.
But just when the visitors were getting on top, Southampton took the lead as Sadio Mane raced behind the defence before chipping in from a tight angle.
Arsene Wenger’s side upped the ante after the interval, with Alexis Sanchez coming closest with a firm shot that was well saved by Fraser Forster.
But the Saints doubled their advantage in the 56th minute when Dusan Tadic took advantage of a defensive error to poke in from close range.
Try as they might, the Gunners could not find a way back into the game and left the south coast empty handed.
SETTING THE SCENE
Having ended 2014 on a positive note with seven points from nine over the festive period, Wenger had spoken of his optimism for the year ahead.
But with a punishing schedule having taken its toll, the manager shuffled his pack at St Mary’s - the most noteworthy change being the promotion of Calum Chambers into midfield in place of the injured Mathieu Flamini.
Elsewhere, Danny Welbeck’s thigh injury ruled him out so Alexis Sanchez moved inside to central striker and Tomas Rosicky was drafted in on the right flank. The final change saw Kieran Gibbs return, with Nacho Monreal dropping to the bench.
The omens were good for the Gunners ahead of kick off. They had won seven and lost just one of their previous nine New Year’s Day fixtures in the Premier League, with the only draw coming at Southampton in 2013. They were also unbeaten in their 10 Premier League meetings with the Saints.
Wenger has stressed his belief that Ronald Koeman’s side are genuine top-four contenders this season, and the hosts made three changes following their creditable 1-1 draw with Chelsea four days earlier.
Arsenal made a bright start, but were fortunate not to fall behind in the sixth minute when Tadic hooked in a ball from the left byeline and the towering Pelle hit the post from six yards out.
It was a real let-off and the chance seemed to give Southampton an early shot of confidence, with Wojciech Szczesny having to be alert to deny Pelle soon afterwards.
But the Gunners soon started to move the ball about more fluidly and had a golden opportunity to open the scoring in the 20th minute.
It came as Francis Coquelin released Alexis down the right, and his brilliant touch set Rosicky free on the overlap. The Czech midfielder waited intelligently before cutting the ball back across the face of the six-yard box for the onrushing Cazorla, but he scuffed his shot and Forster was able to hold it.
It was comfortably the best opportunity of the game, and they came close again soon afterwards when Cazorla found Oxlade-Chamberlain in the area and his first-time shot arrowed inches wide of the far post.
But just when the Gunners were starting to exert a degree of dominance, the hosts grabbed the lead. It came as the dangerous Mane chased down a long ball up the right channel and, with Szczesny having raced out of his goal to close down the angle, the Senegalese international took a touch and then chipped the ball over the Arsenal goalkeeper and into the empty net.
It was harsh on the Gunners, who had arguably been the better team until that point, but they could have gone two down soon afterwards but Szczesny made a brilliant save to deny James Ward-Prowse from inside the area.
Wenger’s side started the second half on the front foot and could have levelled matters in the 55th minute, but Forster superbly saved Alexis’ firm shot from close range.
But just when they were really starting to get on top, they fell further behind when Tadic preyed on defensive uncertainty between Mathieu Debuchy and Szczesny to poke in from close range.
It was a hammer blow for the Gunners, and moments later Tadic flashed a shot inches wide of goal. Suddenly the Saints’ tails were up and they came perilously close to a third when Pelle hit the post, before Ward-Prowse pounced on the loose ball but crashed a shot over the bar.
Arsenal were living dangerously and they were lucky to escape midway through the half when Laurent Koscielny’s underhit backpass put Szczesny in trouble, with Debuchy was forced to clear Pelle’s resulting shot off the line.
The Gunners pushed on as they sought a way back into the game, but could find no way through a resolute home backline during a frustrating end to the game.
It was just not their day, and not the perfect way to see in the New Year.
Referee: Craig Pawson
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