Arsene Wenger has hit back at Jose Mourinho by insisting he wasn’t using gamesmanship when he picked Alexandre Lacazette to face Manchester United 24 hours after saying he would miss the game with a groin injury.
France striker Lacazette was a surprise selection for Arsenal‘s 3-1 defeat against United last weekend as Gunners boss Wenger had stated he would miss the game due to the injury he suffered against Huddersfield at half-time.
Instead, Lacazette was fit to start at the Emirates Stadium and scored Arsenal’s goal.
“I’m telling the truth,” Mourinho said when listing the availability of some of his players. “It’s the truth, eh? No stories of Lacazette or (Manchester City midfielder) David Silva. All the truth.”
Wenger, speaking ahead of Arsenal’s Europa League game against BATE Borisov, was asked about Mourinho’s comments and said he was expecting to go into the United game without the former Lyon star.
“I thought he wouldn’t play. In the end, he could play. What did you want me to do, leave him at home?” Wenger said on Wednesday.
“I’m always honest. I thought really that he wouldn’t play, that’s what I had been told.
“After, he had a test on Friday morning and went to the game. We weren’t sure he would play but he tried and he played, that’s part of football.”
Arsenal welcome Belarusian Premier League champions BATE on Thursday having already sealed top spot in Group H.
Wenger has made mass changes throughout the competition, handing valuable game time to the likes of Theo Walcott, Jack Wilshere and Olivier Giroud.
Even though progression into the last 32 has been assured, the Frenchman still intends to play those on the fringes of the first team, rather than blood a team of youngsters.
Asked how winning the group would affect his team selection, Wenger said: “Not too much, because I have many players available who need competition.
“Next week we go into a week with three games and so some players need competition, some experienced players. We’ll play quite an experienced team tomorrow.”
Wenger also warned the injury-plagued Wilshere to be careful when ice skating after pictures emerged of the midfielder with his family at a rink earlier in the week.
“It’s not ideal. For your balance it’s not bad but for a footballer I don’t think it’s great. It depends as well on what you do,” he said.
“You can do ice skating by bringing your child on and just making sure nothing happens to him, or (you can do) ice skating violently, I don’t think he did that.”
Guardiola claimed first blood, leading City to a 2-1 win at Old Trafford in September 2016, but both teams fell by the wayside thereafter, finishing the campaign well adrift of Premier League champions Chelsea.
Fifteen games into the new season, City are eight points clear of United at the top of the table and Sunday’s game is being billed as Mourinho’s big chance to stick a spike in Guardiola’s wheels.
“If we lost two out of three and they win everything, they are there.”
The arrival in Manchester of the two pre-eminent managers of the age stoked the embers of a bitter personal rivalry that had crackled with blistering intensity during the two years they spent in opposing camps in Spain.
Mourinho’s first season at Real Madrid in 2010-11 culminated in an infamously spiky series of matches against Guardiola’s Barcelona, who would have the last laugh by claiming a La Liga and Champions League double.
Mourinho nourished the hostility, villainously jabbing his finger in the eye of Guardiola’s assistant, the late Tito Vilanova, during a Spanish Super Cup match in 2011.
Madrid finished the 2011-12 season as champions and Guardiola, worn out by the constant sniping, stepped down at Camp Nou and would not resurface at Bayern Munich for another year.
The men’s September 2016 reunion promised much, Guardiola’s slick City wiping the floor with United in the first half before a Claudio Bravo blunder enabled Zlatan Ibrahimovic to make a game of it in the second.
But by the time of their most recent meeting, at the Etihad Stadium in April, thoughts of an all-Manchester title shootout had vanished.
– ‘Ray of hope’ –
A grim 0-0 draw left both teams locked in a battle for fourth place as Antonio Conte‘s Chelsea streaked towards glory.
City eventually finished third as United trailed home in sixth place, but Mourinho could reflect on the season with greater satisfaction after leading his team to a League Cup and Europa League double.
Seven months on City look almost transcendent, their sublime and devastatingly effective possession football reminiscent of Guardiola’s great Barcelona team.
Having won their last 13 league games, they can set a new mark for successive wins within an English top-flight campaign if they prevail on Sunday.
Recent results, however, give United reason for optimism.
While City have had to grind out wins, needing late goals to see off Feyenoord, Huddersfield Town, Southampton and West Ham United, Mourinho’s counter-attacking United team have hit form.
They followed up impressive wins at Watford and Arsenal with a 2-1 defeat of CSKA Moscow that sent them into the Champions League last 16 and have not lost at home since last year’s loss to City — a run of 40 matches.
“They (United) might, for the first time this season, have just seen a little ray of hope,” said former United captain Gary Neville in his Sky Sports podcast.
“There will be better teams (who play City) than Huddersfield, Southampton and West Ham, yet all came close.
“United will be confident going into the game because of what has happened this weekend for City, even though it has been a good week for City too, as they’ve scored three late winners and have taken maximum points.”
There was a glint of the old malice in Mourinho’s eye after United’s win over CSKA on Tuesday, when he suggested Guardiola was being untruthful by expressing doubts about the fitness of Spanish playmaker David Silva.
It is a look Guardiola knows all too well and its reappearance indicates the biggest managerial rivalry of recent times is about to erupt again.
In this column, we track the best Arab players plying their trade in the Premier League and round up their performances every week.
Mohamed Salah has become an ever-present in this column, starring again over the last week with a brace and an assist over two games as Premier League teams faced off in midweek before going again in the weekend.
Meanwhile, Riyad Mahrez seems to be enjoying an uptick in form under recently appointed Leicester City manager Claude Puel, and this week he delivered a performance that recalled his magical season of 2015-16, when his exploits helped Leicester win the league.
Here’s a look at how these Arab footballers fared this week.
Liverpool boss Jurgen Klopp gave Salah some rest for the midweek match against Stoke City, dropping the Egyptian to the bench. No matter, as the Egyptian came on for the last twenty minutes and scored twice, to take his league goal tally to 12 this season. He’s two goals ahead of his nearest challenger, Harry Kane, thanks to that brace.
Salah then had arguably his least threatening game this season on Saturday against Brighton – and he still bagged an assist. Liverpool raced out to a 2-0 lead and then picked Brighton apart on the counter, a role for which Salah is extremely well-suited.
Salah’s pass set up Roberto Firmino‘s second goal of the game, and Liverpool’s third, in a move that started with Simon Mignolet making a point-blank save to prevent Brighton from cutting the deficit to 2-1. It was a quintessential Liverpool goal, and Salah was at the heart of the move.
Rating – 8/10
Claude Puel’s arrival as Leicester City manager seems to be having an impact on Mahrez. The Algerian had been going through a long patch of indifferent form, but Puel is slowly coaxing the best out of him, as the manager is doing out of many of the Foxes’ other attacking players.
Mahrez delivered a trademark goal against Spurs in midweek, cutting in from the right flank and unleashing a thundering strike with his left foot to score Leicester’s second goal, the goal that turned out to be the winner.
His impact against Burnley was less obvious and flashy, but no less important, as he kept the Clarets’ defence honest and worked hard to help his side maintain the lead they took early in the game. Leicester City ended the week in ninth, and Mahrez had a big part to play in his side’s two wins.
Rating – 8/10
It was heartbreak for Sofiane Boufal and his Southampton teammates in midweek, as they so nearly earned a point at the home of Manchester City. Boufal was instrumental in Southampton’s fightback in that game, coming on as a substitute and setting up Oriol Romeu for the Saints’ equaliser at the Etihad Stadium.
Unfortunately, the league leaders scored in injury time to deny Boufal and Southampton what would have been a hard-fought point.
Boufal made enough of an impression in his cameo against City to be restored to the starting lineup against derby rivals Bournemouth on Sunday. Although unable to make the telling impact he did against Pep Guardiola‘s side, the Moroccan was a spark throughout, proving to be a nuisance for the Bournemouth defence in Southampton’s 1-1 draw.
Rating – 6.5/10