Arsenal missing key players ahead of Bayern Munich clash
Arsene Wenger's Arsenal squad go into tonight's Champions League last-16 tie against Bayern Munich, which his team trail 3-1 from the first leg, with goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny rested and midfielder Jack Wilshere one of a number of key players missing through injury.
The England midfielder is out for as long as four weeks, Wenger confirmed with an ankle problem that the club fear could develop into the kind of stress fracture that meant Wilshere missed 17 months up to October.
As for Szczesny, Wenger said that the Poland goalkeeper was "mentally" affected by having played so many games since the start of the season.
It pointed towards Wenger signing a more experienced goalkeeper this summer, with Szczesny appearing to have lost the faith of his manager. Back-up 'keeper Lukasz Fabianski was a surprise inclusion in the squad, as was Andrei Arshavin.
On Szczesny, Wenger said: "He has played many games since the start of the season and I felt that mentally it affected him. That is why I have rested him".
Asked why he was leaving his first-choice goalkeeper out of such a high-profile game, Wenger said that it was not an unusual move.
"It is his only his second season in the Premier League and he has played many games," he said. "Some of our players have played many, many games since the start of the season. That is why you have a big squad and you sometimes rotate the players."
The timing will prompt suspicion that Wilshere and Szczesny have effectively been asked to prioritise Arsenal's race for a top-four Premier League finish above both England and the small chance of overhauling a 3-1 first-leg deficit against Bayern.
Despite Wenger's claim that Arsenal are not facing mission impossible in Germany, other team selections are expected to suggest that he is also thinking of the Premier League and the importance of beating Swansea at the Liberty Stadium on Saturday.
As well as Wilshere, Bacary Sagna (knee) and Lukas Podolski (ankle) did not travel to Munich yesterday due to injury.
Santi Cazorla, Per Mertesacker and Theo Walcott may also only start on the bench.
"Swansea is a massive game – qualifying for the Champions League is massive for us," said Wenger.
Arsenal did almost overhaul a 4-0 first-leg deficit against AC Milan last season and Wenger said that it was crucial that his team start strongly tonight.
"We have to create the doubt in their mind – we have to have a real go without being silly," he said. "This team has a fantastic attitude. If this team can find a big game, a big win, you will see a completely different animal. This is a chance for that.
"We have won everywhere in Europe – we have a right to believe."
With two international fixtures looming, Wilshere is able to take four weeks off and still miss only one league match. England play San Marino a week on Friday and then Montenegro in Podgorica on March 26 in a match that could determine their participation in next year's World Cup.
Montenegro top England's World Cup qualifying group and, with only one team guaranteed to take their place in Brazil next year, Wilshere's absence will be a big loss.
Roy Hodgson has indicated that he intends to build his England midfield around Wilshere, who was outstanding in the recent 2-1 win over Brazil. Hodgson will be in Munich and will announce his squad to face San Marino and Montenegro tomorrow.
Wenger accepts that England could make their own checks on Wilshere but has been in communication with Hodgson about the situation. It is understood that Hodgson does not plan to select Wilshere, whose previous injury occurred while he was on England duty.
Wenger also conceded that he may have overplayed the 21-year-old for Arsenal. Wilshere will return from a holiday on Friday.
"England can see him – we have nothing to hide," said Wenger. "He will not be available for Munich, for Swansea and not for England. I noticed in the last two games he had to dig deep because he played 28 games. For us, it is a big blow, but maybe for him it is not too bad that he has a little breather on the injury. It is more about prevention."
Wenger said that the problem had been discovered after what are now routine scans on his ankles. "He had some inflamed ankle on the left where he had surgery – he compensated to protect his left ankle and put too much pressure on the right one," he said.
Asked if there was fear because of the similarity with how Wilshere's previous injury started, Wenger said: "Yes. If he had not the history, you should say, 'maybe he can go on'. Last time we said, 'okay, it's bone bruising, let him continue to play' and it transformed into a stress fracture. That's why the specialist said we cannot take this gamble."
Wenger's decision to leave Szczesny in London this week is purely down to form and the desire to give his goalkeeper a psychological break.
"Mentally that is difficult to absorb with such pressure in a big club because everything you do is analysed," he said.
Wenger also confirmed that Munich are among the leading European clubs who have tried to recruit him as manager. "You do what your gut feeling tells you and you believe in the values you have," he said. (© Daily Telegraph, London)
Bayern Munich v Arsenal, Live, RTE 2/Sky Sports 2, 7.45