LONDON: The strain of playing five games in two weeks caught up with Arsenal and Chelsea as they labored to a 0-0 draw in the first leg of their League Cup semi-final on Wednesday.
Contesting their third competition after a packed festive fixture program, the London rivals were lacking the attacking sting to find a breakthrough in the stalemate unlike when they drew 2-2 in the Premier League a week ago.
Perhaps having Alexis Sanchez on the pitch might have made the difference for Arsenal, but Arsene Wenger only deployed his star forward in the second half at Stamford Bridge.
It was a decision, the manager insisted, that had nothing to do with Sanchez being targeted by Manchester City in the January transfer window.
“The team selection had nothing to do with the transfer market,” said Wenger, who has been willing to sell defensive midfielder Francis Coquelin to Valencia this week.
Sanchez could leave for free when his contract expires in June.
“I want him to stay for longer,” Wenger said.
If the sight of Sanchez on the bench was unusual, so too was Wenger watching his own team play from the press tribune as he served the second game of a touchline ban for misconduct toward a referee.
So while Chelsea manager Antonio Conte was in the customary position patrolling the touchline, within meters from his players and bellowing instructions, Wenger was reduced to occasional exacerbated shouts about a dozen rows back.
“It was frustrating,” Wenger said. “But the position was quite interesting.”
Flanked by a security guard and coach Jens Lehmann for company, Wenger’s every groan was in full earshot of the media, every shake of the head clear to see and the kicks of the benches reverberating.
“What?!” Wenger shouted after Chelsea was awarded a free kick in the first half when Eden Hazard went down under Hector Bellerin’s challenge.
The French manager leapt out of the media bench at the start of the second half when Danny Welbeck was penaliSed for fouling Moses.
What Wenger did benefit from for once were clear video replays. So, too, did the referee as video replay assistants were deployed for a third time in English football.
The lengthiest delay in the game came close to the end when Chelsea midfielder Cesc Fabregas was brought down by Welbeck.
Referee Martin Atkinson consulted the VARs watching across west London for almost a minute before deciding against awarding a spot kick.
“What I was worried about was that it took too much time,” Wenger said.
Chelsea did look more likely to take the lead but were wasteful twice with headers. At the end of the first half, Fabregas nodded tamely straight at Arsenal goalkeeper David Ospina. Midway through the second half, Andreas Christiansen headed off target.
“We must be more clinical,” said Conte, whose side also drew 0-0 at second-tier Norwich in the FA Cup on Saturday. “We have to improve with all the players, not only the strikers.
“When you have the chance, you have to score.”
There was a blow for Arsenal when Jack Wilshere, captaining the north London club to cap a recent resurgence in an injury-blighted career, limped off after spraining his left ankle.
“It’s a shame to lose him when he’s in such good form,” Wenger said. “It was by blocking a shot that turned his ankle. It was his good ankle.” The second leg is at the Emirates Stadium on Jan. 24.
“To play three times in three weeks (against Arsenal) is very strange,” Conte said.
“But it’s simpler to prepare the game because you know the team.”
The League Cup is the only domestic competition Wenger hasn’t won in more than 21 years at Arsenal. It also offers his only prospect of domestic silverware this season, since Arsenal’s FA Cup defense ended at the first hurdle at Nottingham Forest on Sunday and the team is sixth in the Premier League.
Published in Dawn, January 12th, 2018