Thursday 24 May 2018

Van Dijk in spot of bother as lucky Arsenal get out of jail

Jeremy Wilson

REFEREE Bobby Madley brandished so many yellow cards and warnings after awarding a deeply controversial late penalty at the Emirates Stadium that the bizarre, real reason for Virgil van Dijk's booking became almost lost in a haze of Southampton anger.

It later emerged that Van Dijk became one of the very few players in history to be cautioned for attempting to damage the penalty spot before Santi Cazorla's 94th-minute winner.

It is understood that some Arsenal players suspected similar foul play when Cazorla slipped and missed a late penalty against West Bromwich Albion last season.

Although Cazorla was unaffected this time, Van Dijk did later admit to an act of gamesmanship.

"Well, yeah, it's a penalty in the last minute, so you try to do anything to prevent the goal and that's what I did, but it didn't work," he said.

Southampton's sense of injustice came with Jose Fonte, who had been jostling with Olivier Giroud, claiming that the Arsenal striker had subsequently asked him who had given the penalty away.

It was certainly the sort of innocuous and diluted incident that does not usually result in a penalty, especially amid the additional complication of Laurent Koscielny still lying dazed in the penalty area after being inadvertently kicked in the head.

Southampton goalkeeper Fraser Forster was signalling for medical assistance and the rest of his team did seem to hesitate briefly immediately prior to the penalty award.

"It was pretty strange and there were players on our side who were also looking a bit confused," said Van Dijk.

Arsene Wenger, who admitted that Arsenal were fortuitous in those final minutes, revealed that Koscielny's eye had closed and that his captain was now a doubt for tomorrow's first Champions League fixture of the season against Paris St-Germain.

The absence of Koscielny would mean starting Rob Holding at centre-back in what would be a first Champions League match barely a year since he made his Championship debut for Bolton Wanderers.

Wenger will make a final decision on Koscielny this morning but it was certainly an eventful 31st birthday for the Arsenal captain.

As well as his eye injury, Koscielny equalised with a spectacular overhead kick after Dusan Tadic's free-kick had gone back into the Arsenal net off Petr Cech.

Despite being a quiet off-field presence, Koscielny certainly seems to have grown in stature since becoming captain.

"He is one of the most experienced players we have here now," said Wenger.

"When you choose a captain, you think of one with a good chance to play in every single game and that's not easy. He has committed to the club for a long contract and he has improved every season.

"Lauernt doesn't score when it is 4-0 - he scores at 1-0 down. He will be a concern for PSG."

Other changes are certain within an Arsenal squad that Wenger expects to rotate more than ever.

Granit Xhaka, Alexis Sanchez and Oliver Giroud were all substitutes on Saturday and will surely start at the Parc des Princes.

Asked if it was now the strongest squad he has had at Arsenal, Wenger said: "The strongest and certainly the oldest as well. With the quantity of games, you cannot always play with the same players."

Wenger urged patience on judging new striker Lucas Perez, who was largely anonymous for the 62 minutes played.

However, patience is something that may be in short supply among the Arsenal faithful this season.

Wenger's charges mustered just two attempts on target against the resolute and organised Saints and a typically hostile home crowd let their feelings be known with their usual repertoire of jeers and groans.

Having dropped five points before the international break, a second consecutive failure on their own patch would have left the Gunners seven adrift of leaders Manchester City and prompted an early-season inquest.(© The Daily Telegraph, London)

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