GUN­NERS ON A KNIFE-EDGE

Wenger is braced for a stormy time

New Straits Times - - Sport -

ARSENE Wenger bro­kered a frag­ile truce with Ar­se­nal’s dis­sent­ing fans by win­ning the FA Cup, but has lit­tle mar­gin for er­ror ahead of to­day’s Pre­mier League opener against Le­ices­ter City.

Last sea­son was by far the most dif­fi­cult of Wenger’s 21-year ten­ure as man­ager, with Ar­se­nal’s on-pitch tra­vails ex­pos­ing him to fu­ri­ous protests from sec­tions of the club’s sup­port.

Hav­ing ended months of spec­u­la­tion by sign­ing a new two-year con­tract, he is look­ing for­ward and says that if the team put on a united front, the fans will fall into line be­hind them.

“A lot (of the trou­ble) was cre­ated by my own sit­u­a­tion. Maybe I made a mis­take,” Wenger said af­ter Ar­se­nal beat Chelsea on penal­ties in last week­end’s Com­mu­nity Shield.

“Over­all I be­lieve that it’s down to us. The trend has al­ways to come from the team.”

Un­der­min­ing Wenger’s quest for har­mony is the un­cer­tainty sur­round­ing sev­eral first-team play­ers.

Alexis Sanchez, Me­sut Ozil, Alex Oxlade-Cham­ber­lain and Jack Wil­shere are among the play­ers whose con­tracts ex­pire at the end of the sea­son.

Sanchez in par­tic­u­lar has been the sub­ject of in­tense spec­u­la­tion about his fu­ture amid re­ported in­ter­est from the bigspend­ing duo of Manch­ester City and Paris Saint-Ger­main.

The Chile for­ward missed pre­sea­son af­ter be­ing granted ex­tra time off fol­low­ing the Con­fed­er­a­tions Cup and has been ruled out of to­day’s game due to an ab­dom­i­nal strain.

That Wenger is not go­ing into the new cam­paign with the fans still at his throat owes much to Ar­se­nal’s strong fin­ish to last sea­son.

Af­ter Wenger be­lat­edly adopted a 3-4-2-1 for­ma­tion — a tac­ti­cal trend sparked by cham­pi­ons Chelsea — Ar­se­nal won seven of their last eight league games and stunned Chelsea 2-1 in the FA Cup fi­nal.

They de­feated Chelsea again when the teams re­newed ac­quain­tances at Wem­b­ley in last Sun­day’s Com­mu­nity Shield, win­ning a penalty shootout 4-1 af­ter a 1-1 draw.

As well as the sil­ver­ware, Ar­se­nal’s sup­port­ers have also had a ma­jor sign­ing to cel­e­brate af­ter Wenger broke the club’s transfer record to sign pro­lific French striker Alexan­dre La­cazette from Lyon.

The 26-year-old set Ar­se­nal back an ini­tial fee of £46.5 mil­lion (RM260 mil­lion) and is ex­pected to lead the line, flanked by Sanchez and Ozil.

Ozil is a doubt against Le­ices­ter, how­ever, along with Aaron Ram­sey, Per Merte­sacker and Shko­dran Mustafi, while Lau­rent Ko­scielny is sus­pended. Gabriel and Santi Ca­zorla are def­i­nitely out.

For the first time since 1997, Ar­se­nal are go­ing into a sea­son with­out Cham­pi­ons League foot­ball and Wenger has pledged to rest play­ers in the Europa League.

He has said he in­tends “to fo­cus com­pletely on the Pre­mier League“, but if such an ap­proach fails to yield a ti­tle chal­lenge, he can ex­pect the protests to ramp up quickly.

Af­ter go­ing into last sea­son as de­fend­ing cham­pi­ons, only for a close shave with rel­e­ga­tion to cost man­ager Clau­dio Ranieri his job, Le­ices­ter are tar­get­ing sta­bil­ity un­der Craig Shake­speare.

They have spent over £50 mil­lion, strength­en­ing each squad depart­ment with moves for goal­keeper Eldin Jakupovic, cen­tre­back Harry Maguire, mid­fielder Vi­cente Iborra and striker Kelechi Iheana­cho.

Spa­niard Iborra has been ruled out of the trip to the Emi­rates Sta­dium with a groin strain and joins cen­tre-back Robert Huth and mid­fielder Danny Drinkwa­ter on the side­lines.

But 20-year-old Nige­ria star­let Iheana­cho, signed from Manch­ester City last week, has been passed fit af­ter sus­tain­ing a knock in a friendly against Borus­sia Moenchenglad­bach.

“You’ve got the sea­son ahead to look for­ward to and ev­ery­one’s rar­ing to go,” said cap­tain Wes Mor­gan.

“We’ve got our first game this Fri­day com­ing and we can’t wait to get started.”

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