LONDON – Danny Welbeck inspired Arsenal to a sixth straight victory with two goals and an assist in a hot-tempered 3-2 home win over Southampton to leave the Saints still rooted in the relegation zone.
The England forward had not scored a single league goal since September last year, but proved the catalyst for a much-changed Arsenal side ahead of their Europa League quarter-final second leg at CSKA Moscow on Thursday.
Saints remain three points adrift of safety despite taking the lead early on through a Shane Long goal, and then levelling at 2-2 when Charlie Austin scored just seconds after coming on as a substitute.
But Welbeck had the last word by heading in the winner moments after he had missed a much easier chance.
And Southampton’s survival hopes suffered another blow when defender Jack Stephens was sent off for an off-the-ball clash with Jack Wilshere in stoppage time, with Arsenal’s Mohamed Elneny also shown a red card for shoving Cedric Soares in the face.
Sixth-placed Arsenal close to within two points of Chelsea, who host West Ham later on Sunday, but remain well off the pace in the race for a top-four finish.
Despite Arsenal’s recent revival, the Emirates was again far from full as fans voted with their feet against Arsene Wenger’s refusal to end his 22-year stay in charge as manager.
Wenger made seven changes from the side that beat CSKA 4-1 in their quarter-final first leg on Thursday, with securing a return to the Champions League by winning the Europa League now Arsenal’s priority for the rest of the season.
And Southampton took full advantage of a sloppy start from the hosts in the 17th minute.
Cedric Soares cross from the right did not look particularly dangerous, but goalkeeper Petr Cech and defender Shkodran Mustafi left it to each other, and Long nipped in to poke home.
Arsenal responded well, though, and Aubameyang brought them level with his sixth goal in eight appearances for the Gunners as he flicked home Welbeck’s pass.
Welbeck put Arsenal ahead seven minutes before the break when he accepted a pass from Alex Iwobi on the left, and shrugged off challengers before unleashing a shot that was helped past McCarthy by a deflection off Maya Yoshida.
The second half began with McCarthy making impressive saves from Aubameyang, Granit Xhaka and Iwobi to underline why he is keeping England international Fraser Forster out of the Southampton team.
At the other end, Elneny had to head off the line to keep out Wesley Hoedt’s header and Cech dived to save another Long effort.
🗣 "Welbeck has been getting sharper and he’s getting back to his best. I’m very happy and pleased for him. He’s been through some difficult times. He deserves everything he gets." pic.twitter.com/EpN8psVc9Y
Long had the ball in the net from Saints’ next attack, deflecting in a long-range effort from Cedric, but the forward was marginally offside, even if he didn’t think so.
An equaliser was coming, though, and was netted by substitute Austin in the 73rd minute after Cedric had burst into the box to square the ball for a tap-in.
Welbeck missed a great chance to put Arsenal back ahead when he fired over from three yards out after Wilshere had hooked the ball across goal.
But the England international made no mistake nine minutes from time when he headed Iwobi’s delivery to the back post beyond McCarthy.