Saints held league leaders Arsenal to an exhilarating 2-2 draw in a pulsating encounter at St Mary’s.
For long periods of the game Southampton were the better team, and a breath-taking first half display appeared to confirm that the hosts were good value for their 1-0 lead after 45 minutes.
Jose Fonte’s back post header put Mauricio Pochettino’s men in front, but the second half threw up a completely different performance from Arsenal, who turned the game on its head with two strikes inside five minutes of each other as first Olivier Giroud, and then Santi Cazorla showed the quality in the Gunners locker as they made it 2-1 after 52 minutes.
Just as the momentum appeared to be favouring the visitors, Adam Lallana responded with a cracking close range finish from Jay Rodriguez’s cross to swiftly even things up to set up an exciting climax to the game.
Luke Shaw and Morgan Schneiderlin were amongst the Saints players to test Wojciech Szczesny in the Arsenal goal with Arsene Wenger’s men withstanding pressure long before Mathieu Flamini saw red late on for a two-footed lunge on Schneiderlin.
There was to be no repeat of Saints ‘ last win over the Gunners in 2002 which ended 3-2, but the point against the league’s form team was certainly one to celebrate at the final whistle.
Mauricio Pochettino handed a first senior start to 18 year-old striker Sam Gallagher following the youngster’s cameo performance in the FA Cup against Yeovil Town which yielded his first professional goal.
In the absence of Dejan Lovren, Japanese centre back Maya Yoshida stepped into the centre of defence, whilst Artur Boruc and Calum Chambers also returned after being rested over the weekend.
Victor Wanyama returned to the squad for the first time since the start of December, and was named amongst the substitutes.
Visitors Arsenal got the match underway attacking the Chapel stand in their changed strip of yellow shirts and blue shorts, on a clear and cool evening inside St Mary’s.
The contest began with an extended spell of possession from Saints, as they commenced a tactical battle with the Gunners in making full use of the ball in the opening minutes of the game.
That yielded a corner for the hosts when Jay Rodriguez’s raking pass at the end of a slick passing move saw Calum Chambers win a set piece off Arsenal’s left back, Nacho Monreal.
Another positive break in the sixth minute, this time from the left saw Luke Shaw cross dangerously into Gallagher, but the ball bounced off the attacker’s leg before he could steady himself to divert it on target.
Gallagher went closer a minute later as he reacted quickly inside the area to fire in a quick shot on the turn which drew a smart save from Wojciech Szczesny, who palmed it away to his right, a save which brought the crowd to its feet in appreciation of the young Saints forward whose energy was shining through.
The home side continued to dominate the early exchanges, with Steven Davis and Calum Chambers in particular, driving forces behind Saints’ initial promise down the right flank.
As play passed the quarter hour mark, there was still only one team in control with Saints out-passing and outmanoeuvring the league leaders across the pitch.
And the pressure told on 21 minutes when Saints benefitted from a free-kick on the left flank. The ball was played to Shaw on that side and the full back’s deep cross to the far post was headed in by Jose FONTE who towered above Monreal to sneak the ball in at the near post for a deserved 1-0 lead.
Two minutes later, Steven Davis played the ball into Lallana, who spun and shot from the edge of the area, with the strike taking a slight deflection on its way out for another corner.
The resulting set piece was cleverly played into Lallana, who again showed terrific ability to get to the byline and cross low into the area, but unfortunately the ball squirmed away from the red shirts inside the 18 yard box.
Arsenal showed brief resurgence with Serge Gnabry making light work of the treacherous wet conditions to make a couple of strong runs down the right flank, but Saints continued to marshal their opponents across the backline.
Saints soon returned to the front-foot, and were only stopped in their tracks when Giroud was booked for a strong slide on Schneiderlin that thwarted another promising looking attack for the hosts.
The hosts had a great chance to double their lead on 36 minutes. A clearance from Nacho Monreal took a freak deflection off Steven Davis and landed in towards the path of Gallagher, who from six yards out just steered his shot the wrong side of the post as 2-0 briefly beckoned.
Szczesny required a spot of treatment after taking a blow from Gallagher’s outstretched leg in the attempt on goal which held play up for a couple of minutes as the clock ticked over 40.
Gallagher dusted himself down to link up with Davis and Lallana for another opportunity that resulted in Koscielny having to make a timely slide tackle to deny the youngster from registering a shot on target.
Koscielny was then involved at the other end just prior to three minutes of stoppage time being allocated. From Mesut Ozil’s corner, the ball flicked off the head of Luke Shaw into the path of the French defender, whose powerful close range header was spectacularly kept out by Artur Boruc.
Boruc had had little else to do in the half, but undoubtedly made a key save to keep Saints’ lead intact going into the break.
HALF-TIME: SOUTHAMPTON 1-0 ARSENAL
There were no changes from either side as the teams re-emerged for the second 45 minutes with Saints keen to pick up from where they left off before the interval.
It was the Gunners who were celebrating a fine start to the half though. Three minutes into the restart, the visitors drew level in sublime fashion when Bacary Sagna’s low cross from the right was turned in by Olivier GIROUD who applied a cheeky finish with a cute back-heel from three yards out to find the back of the net and level the scores.
The fired up opponents looked a different team as they laid siege to the Saints area. Sagna saw a header from a corner saved by Boruc, before the Gunners turned the game on its head in dramatic fashion with 52 minutes on the watch.
Ozil’s sweeping run from right to centre was Giroud dummy the pass into the path of Santi CAZORLA who hit a sweet strike right into the bottom corner to put the visitors in front.
In another twist, Saints were level again just a minute later. Jay Rodriguez’s run and cross from the left picked out the on-rushing LALLANA who crashed home a strike from eight yards out to make it 2-2 and the game’s third goal in a rollercoaster six minute spell.
In complete contrast to the opening 45 minutes, the open nature of the contest saw the action swing from end to end, something which appeared to suit Saints as they went back in pursuit of a third goal.
Luke Shaw saw a cross deflected out for a corner, and the resulting set piece led to Morgan Schneiderlin having a curling shot headed off the line.
At the other end, Ozil broke free of Yoshida to advance into the area, and whilst the German got his shot off, Fonte’s sliding challenge deflected the ball high enough to strike the crossbar.
A clash of heads between Sagna and Shaw saw play held up whilst the defenders received treatment.
Once the action resumed on 70 minutes, Saints brought on James Ward-Prowse for Sam Gallagher, whilst former Saints man Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain replaced Gnabry.
The switch by Pochettino saw Rodriguez move up as the lone striker with Ward-Prowse taking up a position on the right flank.
Monreal had an opportunity to test Boruc when he broke into the box on the left side, but the full back’s rising shot cleared the bar by some distance as the game remained delicately poised.
Saints attempted a quick break of their own when they cleared their lines at the back to launch an attack down the left. Lallana’s quick instinct to release Rodriguez with a ball over the top was only just thwarted by Szczesny as the Arsenal goalkeeper rushed out of his area to clear.
With ten minutes to play, Mathieu Flamini was sent off for a dreadful two-footed lunge on Schneiderlin after the Saints man had clearly irritated the visitors by drifting past three yellow shirts before frustrations boiled over.
Saints sought to take full advantage of the extra man, but Arsenal eventually replaced Cazorla with Kieran Gibbs with four minutes of the 90 remaining.
Almost immediately, Shaw broke rank to get the better of Sagna for a cross/shot that Szczesny had to tip over at full stretch.
The following corner was whipped in by Ward-Prowse and struck towards goal by Fonte, where Szczesny made another fine low save to keep the game level going into the closing stages.
Both teams made further changes with Saints switching Steven Davis for Guly do Prado, whilst Arsenal introduced Lukas Podolski for Giroud as the clock ticked over to 90.
Six minutes of stoppage time were added on by the fourth official as both teams renewed their battle to secure all three points in a thrilling end to the game.
Rodriguez headed a Jack Cork cross at Szszesny, and moments later Cork was almost the recipient of Chambers’ low pass into the area, but Per Mertesacker swiftly denied the midfielder from taking a hold of the ball.
It was all about Saints’ quest to find a third goal in the additional time, but the Gunners’ ten men held out to take a point from an entertaining contest.
FULL-TIME: SOUTHAMPTON 2-2 ARSENAL
Southampton team: Artur Boruc, Calum Chambers, Jose Fonte, Maya Yoshida, Luke Shaw, Jack Cork, Morgan Schneiderlin, Steven Davis (Guly do Prado 89), Adam Lallana (c), Jay Rodriguez, Sam Gallagher (James Ward-Prowse 70)
Unused substitutes: Kelvin Davis, Nathaniel Clyne, Jos Hooiveld, Victor Wanyama, Lloyd Isgrove
Goals: Fonte, 21; Lallana, 54
Arsenal team: Wojciech Szczesny, Bacary Sagna, Per Mertesacker, Laurent Koscielny, Nacho Monreal, Mesut Ozil, Mikel Arteta (c) Santi Cazorla (Kieran Gibbs 86), Mathieu Flamini, Serge Gnabry (Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain 70), Olivier Giroud (Lukas Podolski 89)
Unused substitutes: Lukasz Fabianski, Thomas Vermaelen, Nicklas Bendtner, Carl Jenkinson
Goals: Giroud, 48; Cazorla, 52
Sent off: Flamini, 80
Referee: Lee Mason
Attendance: 31,284 (including 3,243 away)