Wenger backs unsettled Sanchez


LONDON. — Arsene Wenger insists Alexis Sanchez remains committed to Arsenal even though the Gunners boss left out his unsettled star for the League Cup soccer semi-final clash with Chelsea.

Wenger opted to keep Sanchez on the bench until the last 25 minutes of Wednesday night’s 0-0 first leg draw at Stamford Bridge. It was a bold gamble by Wenger given the League Cup represents one of the few chances for Arsenal to win silverware in another frustrating season.

Some Arsenal fans and pundits say Sanchez no longer gives 100 percent because his contract expires at the end of the season and he has so far refused to sign a new deal amid reports he is a divisive figure in the dressing room.

Although English Premier League leaders Manchester City are keen to sign Sanchez after their move for the Chile forward fell through in August, Wenger claimed he is still completely focused on the Arsenal cause despite a series of lacklustre performances.

“The performance of Alexis Sanchez and the commitment does not depend on the duration of his contract, just depends on the fact when he’s on the football pitch he wants to play,” Wenger said.

“People don’t know Alexis Sanchez. This is a guy completely focused on playing football. Did you see how he came on today? How he warmed up? Like a player who wants to play football. He can make a difference between what’s going on outside and what’s going on on the football pitch.

“He doesn’t need to tell me he speaks to anybody else. He doesn’t need to alert the club. He can do it on his own. We live with facts, not with psychological theories. When you come on to the pitch you play football and give 100 per cent. That’s what he does.” Remarkably, Wenger appears to believe Sanchez could still be persuaded to remain in north London.

“I want him to stay for longer, I have no problem if he signs with us now or in June,” he added.

Wenger was mostly happy with what he saw in Wednesday’s 0-0 draw against Chelsea in the League Cup semi-finals. Neither side was able to find the net at Stamford Bridge, leaving the tie wide open for the second leg at the Emirates Stadium in a fortnight.

“I felt that we performed well, it was a very intense game where we were very well organised and had a great solidarity in the team,” Wenger told his club’s official website.

“We are used to scoring, of course, so we are a bit frustrated we didn’t score, but overall I think the team performance was very positive and very good. We play at home in [the second leg] in a game we want to win. We have to win to qualify for the final, so let’s do the job .

“Overall I believe that it is, of course, a good opportunity for us to go to Wembley where we want to go, but we know that Chelsea are a dangerous side, so that is why it is important until then that we win our Premier League games and prepare after.”

After goalless stalemates against the Blues and Norwich City in recent weeks, the latter coming in the FA Cup, the Gunners return to Premier League action against Bournemouth on Sunday.

Arsenal winger Alex Iwobi featured instead of Sanchez despite facing a fine for partying prior to last Sunday’s shock FA Cup third round defeat at Nottingham Forest. Quizzed on whether selecting Iwobi sent a mixed message on team discipline, Wenger said: “There’s one thing to punish someone individually and a second thing to punish everybody.

“If I think he can help the team to win, that’s nothing to do with the fact he can be punished separately, individually.” Wenger, who said Jack Wilshere will miss Sunday’s game at Bournemouth after suffering an ankle injury, watched from the press box while serving the second game of his three-match touchline ban. He admitted the experience of being surrounding by reporters during the match had been strange.

“It was frustrating but you (the media) have the best seats. The position was quite interesting, because I was close to the bench and not too high up. That’s where I like to be,” he said.

Meanwhile, Chelsea manager Antonio Conte was left frustrated by his side’s failure to turn a dominant display into a victory. It was Chelsea’s second successive goalless draw following Saturday’s FA Cup stalemate at Norwich and Conte warned his players to sharpen up in front of goal.

“We shot 20 times. We created chances to score, but we didn’t take them. I think in the last period we must be more clinical. My speech is not for the strikers. For example, today (Andreas) Christensen had two fantastic opportunities to score,” he said.

“I think we have to improve with all the players, not only the strikers or midfielders.” Meanwhile, Wenger is set to leave Arsenal fans frustrated by suggesting he won’t replace Francis Coquelin with a new signing. The holding midfielder is on the verge of joining Valencia in a deal worth around £12m.

Despite Coquelin being a long-term servant at the club, only 26 and having three-and-a-half years left on his deal, Arsenal are set to let the Frenchman go for the relatively low fee. The Gunners are expected to make wholesale changes to their squad this year. But new additions are not racing through the door at the Emirates.

Attacking-midfield duo Mesut Ozil and Aaron Ramsey both missed Arsenal’s 0-0 draw at Chelsea in the Carabao Cup semi-final first leg on Wednesday night. And after the game, Wenger indicated he is more likely to deploy current players out of position in a deeper role rather than spend money on replacing Coquelin this month.

“The best way to replace him is getting Ramsey and Ozil back,” Wenger said.

“Then we’ll see. We have players injured.

“He goes to Valencia, he didn’t get enough games. I let him go.” Ramsey has been sidelined since mid-December with a hamstring problem. Ozil’s absence on Wednesday, though, came as some surprise after he was rested for the 4-2 FA Cup third round defeat at Nottingham Forest on Sunday. Coquelin has struggled for game time this season and has been seen as expendable at Arsenal.

But the Gunners are already stretched for natural defensive midfielders, with Granit Xhaka and Mohamed Elneny the only senior options now. Santi Cazorla remains out long term, and Wilshere’s ankle injury against Chelsea has come at the worst time too, leaving Arsenal short for their trip to Bournemouth on Sunday.

And Wenger has also suggested Ainsley Maitland-Niles could be the man to replace Valencia-bound midfielder Coquelin. The 20-year-old has largely been used as a left-back by Wenger this season due to injuries but he thinks this will stand him in good stead in a defensive midfield role.

“I think Maitland-Niles had an outstanding performance tonight. He’s a defensive midfielder basically and what he’s doing at the moment will help him as well to develop as a player because he plays in a different position. There will be an opening for him in midfield.”

Wenger has also decided against sending new signing Konstantinos Mavropanos out on loan after watching him train. The Greek defender (20) joined Arsenal from PAS Giannina last week after being identified by new recruitment chief Sven Mislintat.

Wenger initially said that Mavropanos was “not ready” to play for the club and that he would be sent on loan to a Bundesliga club, thought to be Werder Bremen.But after after just a week in north London, Mavropanos has shown enough to convince his new manager he has a role in the first team squad.

“I personally want to keep him until May, to know him better, to assess his level,” said Wenger, who named the defender on the bench against Chelsea on Wednesday night. The first signs he has shown in training are so encouraging that I decided to keep him until May.” — AFP

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