London: Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger has praised Southampton as "miracle-workers" ahead of Tuesday`s League Cup tie between the Premier League clubs at the Emirates Stadium.
South coast side Southampton saw manager Mauricio Pochettino leave in pre-season to take over at Tottenham Hotspur, Arsenal`s bitter north London rivals.
There was also an exodus of key players from St Mary`s, with Luke Shaw joining Manchester United, while Rickie Lambert, Adam Lallana and Dejan Lovren all signed for Liverpool and Calum Chambers moved to Arsenal -- following the path previously trodden by Theo Walcott and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain.
The most famous of Southampton`s recent `old boys, Gareth Bale, is now starring for European champions Real Madrid
Yet despite seeing the spine of their side ripped up, Saints -- now managed by Ronald Koeman, the former Dutch defender, are currently second in the Premier League, just three points behind leaders Chelsea.
"I think if you look at the talents they have sold over the years, they could have been contenders to win the Premier League because they lost Oxlade-Chamberlain, Walcott, Bale plus all the players they lost last season, plus all the players they still have," Wenger said Monday.
"They have done a fantastic job at Southampton, they deserve a lot of credit," the veteran French boss added.
"They are miracle-workers at Southampton and you must say everybody expected them to collapse, they lost the spine of their team, they lost their manager and they bounced back in a such a way."
Nevertheless, Wenger -- whose side returned to form with a 3-0 league win at Aston Villa last weekend -- plans to stick to his longstanding policy of using the League Cup as an opportunity for his younger players to gain valuable match-experience.
"Tomorrow (Tuesday) night you might see Hector Bellerin, Francis Coquelin and Isaac Hayden. In the squad, we also have Chuba Akpom and Semi Ajayi as well. These are the players that are the closest," said Wenger.
The Gunners boss also said Nacho Monreal and Yaya Sanogo were still not match-fit, while Walcott should return after the international break from the knee injury which ruled him out of the World Cup.
Wenger meanwhile was confident 18-year-old Akpom, who impressed during spells at lower league Brentford and Coventry last season, could become a top-flight player.
"I am happy that he has developed as a goal scorer, because when he was a younger kid, his problem was finishing. That has gone now," said Wenger.
"He is a very good finisher and he has now to learn the tactical side of his game. Then he will be ready, because he is a huge talent."