Sunday 17 December 2017

Wenger facing his greatest gamble

Arsenal to risk Van Persie and Fabregas

Jason Burt

Arsene Wenger was last night contemplating one of the biggest gambles of his managerial career after including Robin van Persie as well as Cesc Fabregas in his squad to face Barcelona.

Fabregas appears certain to start this evening -- although he cannot be fully fit -- while Van Persie should begin the second leg on the bench despite initially being ruled out for "three or four weeks" because of suspected knee ligament damage sustained in the Carling Cup final.

Van Persie surprised even his team-mates by training yesterday and was included in the 19-man squad that flew to Barcelona.

Fabregas has confirmed predictions that he would overcome a hamstring strain to face the team he supported and left, in a move that caused deep acrimony, aged just 16. Earlier in the day, Wenger said the midfielder was "90pc" certain to play. The Arsenal manager said of Fabregas: "It's only been 13 days (since he was injured) so he is a bit short (of fitness)."

Despite the psychological boost, it remains a huge risk for Wenger. His reputation is for not taking such measures, yet he has done so in the past, not least by risking Fabregas against Barca last season only for the midfielder to suffer a stress fracture to his leg.

The manager protested that was certainly not the case with Fabregas this time, but conceded that Van Persie would not be fully fit -- having previously stated he would only field players who were "100pc". "I will consider 99.5pc," Wenger added.

Asked whether Van Persie would be attending the game as a player or spectator, Wenger said: "He's here as a player who will have a test tomorrow. We are 19 here. Whether Van Persie is included in the (final) squad or not has not been decided."

Wenger will have to reduce his squad to 18 and, when quizzed on how Van Persie had made such a rapid recovery, he said: "He has made quick progress in the last three days. When I spoke to him this morning it was unlikely he would travel. But he wanted to give it a go. He had a test and that was positive."

Van Persie flew to Holland last week for his injury to be assessed and to receive treatment, with the expectation that he would be absent for a few weeks. Wenger again insisted that he would not "take a gamble in a game of this importance" on Van Persie's fitness but that was a statement for public consumption -- not least the watching Catalans, who are far more concerned about Arsenal with the Dutchman available.

"He has to be fit or not fit," Wenger added. "I personally would like him to play."

The Frenchman said there was a difference between the type of injury suffered by Van Persie and Fabregas. "There are two kinds of problems -- one is muscular and the other is a ligament problem. And with a muscular problem there is more risk. For Van Persie it is not the chance of a recurrence of the injury, it's whether he feels he can play."

Wenger dismissed suggestions that he was trying to play "mind games" with Barcelona ahead of such a crucial match, with his side 2-1 ahead from the first leg. "I'm very bad at mind games," he said. "It's no mind game." Both Fabregas and Van Persie missed the tie between the sides at the Nou camp last season.

Fabregas said he had been in training for the past six days and could have played in the Premier League match against Sunderland on Saturday. "But there was always a little risk," he said. "I'm feeling good now."

He admitted that he and the rest of the players had been "surprised" to see Van Persie (pictured) prepare for training yesterday morning. "We didn't know anything," he said.

Wenger revealed that Van Persie had told him he had woken yesterday feeling much better and requested to train, firstly on his own and then with the squad. Fabregas insisted the striker would not play unless he was fit. Marouane Chamakh, rather than Nicklas Bendtner, is expected to lead the attack from the start, with Wenger holding Van Persie in reserve. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

Irish Independent

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