Wenger wheels out big guns to make final step
It is a measure of Arsenal's season that a competition once identified as the optimum developmental stage for the club's emerging talent is already the best chance for tangible first-team success.
Arsene Wenger started the likes of Quincy Owusu-Abeyie, Graham Stack and a young David Bentley in the semi- finals back in 2004 while his senior team were sweeping to an 'Invincible' Premier League season but he stressed yesterday that his past policy will be scrapped.
That means no special loyalty to those fringe players who have so far beaten Doncaster, Norwich and West Ham to get Arsenal within 180 minutes of a Wembley final. "It will not be the case this time - I will just pick the team who I think will have a good chance to win and to qualify," he said. "The team will be of course changed."
While David Ospina is likely to continue in goal, manager Wenger is planning virtual full-strength elsewhere and the inclusion of Alexis Sanchez, even amid clear signals that he may well soon get his move to Manchester City.
Wenger went noticeably quiet yesterday when Sanchez's situation was mentioned and there were no assurances that his player will now be held to a contract that expires in June. An opening £20 million bid is expected imminently but, as Wenger showed with Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Liverpool, he will not allow such uncertainty to affect team selection, perhaps because he does not want to send any message of weakness or resignation ahead of negotiations.
Wenger was more forthcoming on the subject of Chelsea manager Antonio Conte and what he still regards as Eden Hazard's unfair penalty in their 2-2 Premier League draw last week. Conte, who is 48, has since described the 68-year-old Wenger as "an old coach" who "tries to find this way" in respect of blaming referees. Wenger remains convinced that Hazard should not have been awarded a penalty and highlighted how the Chelsea winger clutched his shin when he had clearly not been kicked there.
"Am I an old coach?" said Wenger. "Yes. [But] he's not a young coach. He's an old coach as well.
"I didn't blame Hazard. I questioned the decision. You see how Hazard goes down and you see how quickly he takes the penalty. If he was so injured why did he take the penalty? He made more of it and shouts. He acted in a very professional way basically to get the penalty for his team."
Wenger will be serving the second of a three-match touchline ban tonight for verbally abusing Mike Dean in the referee's room after Arsenal's 1-1 draw against West Bromwich Albion.
He was also suspended at Stamford Bridge for the 3-1 Premier League defeat last January when he was seated with random fans, including his own gardener. The problem for Wenger is that the Stamford Bridge directors' box is on the opposite side of the ground to the dressing-rooms, where he wants to be immediately before the game and at half-time.
"That was a bad experience," said Wenger. "I sat next to a guy who said, 'Hello, how are you?' I said, 'Good afternoon.' He said, 'I'm your gardener'. I didn't even know him. I was in the middle of the crowd. It very uncomfortable. Awkward. I will try to find a different place."
A further complication for Wenger yesterday were reports that Alex Iwobi had been out at a party until the early hours of Saturday morning. Arsenal travelled up to Nottingham later that day before a weakened team that included Iwobi were knocked out of the FA Cup.
Wenger is certain that the forward was not drinking or taking any illegal substances but he will be fined for breaking a 48-hour pre-match curfew.
"I've won seven times the FA Cup - people are always scandalised," said Wenger. "We had three games in six days, and many players on the edge. I had no other option but to rest (players) and find a compromise - it backfired."
Even tonight's selection will hinge on late fitness tests for Granit Xhaka and Shkodran Mustafi. "We killed an opportunity to win a trophy on Sunday - we have another one now," Wenger said. "Teams today invest a huge amount of money and are all hungry for trophies."
© Daily Telegraph, London