Arsene Wenger expects Southampton to be fired up for revenge when Arsenal put English football’s only unbeaten league record on the line at St Mary’s tomorrow.
The Gunners, a point behind leaders Manchester United ahead of the final top-flight games of 2003, have racked up 12 wins and six draws from their first 18 fixtures this season.
That sequence will be put to the test when they return to the scene of one of only half-a-dozen defeats they suffered last term.
On that day on the south coast, in November last year, Sol Campbell saw red as the Londoners crashed 3-2.
Arsenal have since beaten Saints twice – the 6-1 Premiership demolition at Highbury coming just before the 1-0 success in the FA Cup final.
And the Millennium Stadium defeat in particular leaves Wenger fearing his side’s superb run without losing will not reach 19 games.
“To do what we’ve already done in the Premiership this season isn’t easy,” he said.
“But now let’s see how we do at Southampton. We want to keep the run going and are prepared and focusing very hard.
“We’ve beaten them the last two times we played them and the 6-1 played on their minds for the FA Cup Final.
“But it’s a different story down there and they’re a force at home.
“It was a tough game there last season and we lost and had Sol sent off.”
The respect with which Wenger views Gordon Strachan’s side is illustrated by the fact he has drawn up a battleplan to counter James Beattie’s aerial dominance.
The England man hit 24 goals last term and has 11 so far this time round.
Wenger, whose side beat Wolves 3-0 on Boxing Day, explained: “Beattie scored a great free-kick against us last season but hasn’t scored as many goals this season as he did last season.
“But we know he’ll be up for every ball against us and always dangerous in the box.
“We have to stop the long balls up front. We don’t want them playing balls into our box so will push very high up the field.”
A boost for Wenger is the news Marian Pahars, just back from a year-long injury lay-off is doubtful with the thigh strain which kept him out of Southampton’s 2-0 Boxing Day defeat at Fulham.
Wenger revealed he may make “one or two changes“.
That could point to the recall of Lauren or Martin Keown, fit again after injuries.
However Wenger also applauded centre-back Pascal Cygan, who seems to have finally mastered English football.
“Pascal doesn’t have the electric pace of Sol Campbell or Kolo Toure but his distribution and understanding of the game are good,” Wenger said.
Gael Clichy is expected to continue to deputise for Ashley Cole at left-back.
The 18-year-old Frenchman impressed in the victory against Wolves and should start again in place of Cole, who completes a three-match ban.
Wenger added: “Clichy is very quick and did very well against Wolves in what was his first Premiership game at Highbury.”