Arsenal’s top four hopes boosted by return of Laurent Koscielny


Goalkeeper Wojciech Sczszesny hailed France international Koscielny as one of the Premier League’s finest centre-backs, declaring after Sunday’s resolute victory at West Ham: “He is as good as you will find in England.”

Arsene Wenger’s team can advance into the Champions League qualification places if they win at fourth-placed Southampton on New Year’s Day.

Koscielny, 29, returned at Upton Park from a four-week injury lay-off to resume his centre-back partnership with Per Mertesacker, and the pair were instrumental in the 2-1 win as they saw off a bombardment of aerial attacks from West Ham.

Sczszeseny said: “When Laurent is fit and plays with Per, they make a great couple of centre-backs. So having them back together is great for us.

“Hopefully he can continue to play and to be clear of injury. He is as good as you are going to get in England.

“Obviously it is much easier when you have got injured players back, because we understand each other.

“We said before the Christmas run of games when we had QPR, West Ham and now Southampton that we wanted nine points. We have six so far so we will go to Southampton with confidence.

“They won’t be short on confidence either, after drawing with Chelsea. But we are looking forward to it and I hope we can get another very important three points.

“With the position we are in, we have to look at short-term goals and that is the three points at Southampton. Whether we can catch the other teams in front of us we will find out, but we just want to focus on every single game now.”

Wenger insists Arsenal, who leap-frogged West Ham into fifth place, have the right to believe they can finish in the top four after qualifying for the Champions League for 17 successive seasons.

“It’s vital for us to do it,” he said. “We have done it for 17 years, so I’m entitled at least to believe we can do it.

“But it’s all to do. When you look at the league, everyone fights very hard for it; Southampton, Tottenham, Manchester United. There are so many teams who can fight for these positions.

“I always had the belief we’d come back to the top four, but it’s far from done. We just have to be consistent in our performances.

“We know that we need to be stable defensively. We’ve missed important players at the back.”

Szczesny went on to praise the grit and mental toughness with which Arsenal inflicted West Ham’s first home defeat since August.

He said: “You don’t really mind how you win games. It is all about the three points. We had to dig very deep against by far the strongest West Ham side I have ever played against. It was quite ugly at the end, but we got through.

“When it was 2-1 they put a lots of balls into the box, so it had to be ugly. We could have made it easier for ourselves and scored from one of the counter-attacks. But it did not happen for us so we just had to defend and put bodies on the line.”

West Ham’s surprisingly successful season has hit the skids with defeats by Chelsea and Arsenal during the holidays but they will expect three points from the home game against struggling West Brom on New Year’s Day.

Defender Joey O’Brien said: “West Brom is the biggest game of the season so far for us. We are coming off two defeats and if we want to be in the top six or seven, then we have to win our home games.

“We beat West Brom up there and that’s what we talk about, doing the double over a team. We are still looking up and we are going forward.

“We have got some quality players. Last year we struggled a little bit with injuries, especially at centre-forward. But now look. We have Carlton Cole on the bench, Daifra Sakho scoring goals and Enner Valencia. Look at our bench against Arsenal. We had Mark Noble and Valencia there. In all the years in the Premier League, we have never had that.

“The manager can make changes and if a player is injured then we are just as strong whereas last year, if we lost two or three players, we would have lost games.”