THEO Walcott is expected to be again unleashed down the middle on his St Mary’s return tonight.

Walcott took his seasonal goals tally to 14 with a hat-trick playing in a central striking role against Newcastle on Saturday night.

His second triple of the season underlined the importance of the ex-Saints academy starlet to Arsene Wenger.

Contract talks are ongoing, but Wenger said: “I have worked with Theo for seven years.

“The fact that he had an exceptional game against Newcastle will not influence me more or less – if he had played a disastrous game, I would still have wanted him to sign with the same intensity.”

Despite the England international, 23, having yet to agree terms on a new contract with the Gunners, Wenger is glad to see Walcott enjoying his football.

“It is good that he gets rewarded for his effort and for me that is more important.”

Wenger is likely to rotate his squad at St Mary's, but could well opt to unleash Walcott down the middle once more.

“I like the fact Theo can play through the middle because it gives us more opportunities to do that and more possibilities to change from game to game,” Wenger said.

“I will do it again.”

Despite some positive displays, Saints remain in the relegation zone after they drew 3-3 at Stoke in a match they had led 3-1.

Wenger is expecting a tough test of his side’s new-found confidence.

“They are not comfortable (opponents), Southampton. I saw them against Fulham, and they played very well against Stoke,” Wenger said.

“Southampton are a team that has learned in the Premier League now. Usually you find in February or in January a different team to what you see in August or September.”