LONDON (Reuters) - Premier League leaders Arsenal have received a boost with the inclusion of Theo Walcott in the squad for Saturday's match at home to his old club Southampton while Lukas Podolski's return is less than a month away.
Manager Arsene Wenger has hailed the availability of England international Walcott, who he signed as a 16-year-old in 2006, after the forward's season was interrupted by an abdominal operation in September.
"Strikers who get behind the defenders have a very important quality and Theo has that quality," Wenger was quoted as saying on Arsenal's official website (www.arsenal.com) on Thursday ahead of the league leaders' clash with the third-placed Saints.
"Of course you miss a player like Theo Walcott. Theo had a good start to the season, he scored goals, he provided chances and had assists. He can always give you a different option in the game and that is of course vital."
Wenger said that although the pacy forward had now fully recovered from surgery, his lack of match fitness meant he would be used cautiously against Southampton who are only three points behind Arsenal after a superb start to the season.
"He has not played for a long time, of course, he has not played even a reserve team game, but I will put him in the squad on Saturday," said the Frenchman.
Although Arsenal failed to find the net in their last game at Manchester United, which they lost 1-0, 22 league goals this season makes them second-top scorers behind Manchester City.
But while Wenger said he was happy with his forward line in recent games, Walcott's return provides more options.
"If you look at our results our balance was not too bad. But Theo has different qualities to other players and I am very pleased that he's back," he added.
Wenger also said their Germany striker Lukas Podolski was nearing a return, while Czech midfielder Tomas Rosicky faces a fitness test on Friday after suffering an illness.
"Podolski is not too far away, I would say three weeks. He is doing fitness training on the pitch. He starts to do some ball work too, he still needs two or three weeks before we see him on the pitch for Arsenal," said Wenger.
However, he added that winger Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain would be out for at least another month, while close-season signing Yaya Sanogo was expected to be fit in January.
Wenger also said he was delighted at France's qualification for the World Cup finals after their dramatic comeback from 2-0 down in the first leg against Ukraine to win 3-2 on aggregate.
It would benefit Arsenal despite creating a busier post-season for players such as Laurent Koscielny, Bacary Sagna and Olivier Giroud who were part of the French squad.
"You want overall the players to be in a positive mood, to have a good self-esteem, and that of course comes by thinking you have the job done," said Wenger.
(Reporting by Oliver Haill; Editing by Ken Ferris)