Arsenal, Chelsea in sterile stalemate in League Cup semis


Arsenal's Alexis Sanchez, left, challenges for the ball with Chelsea's Andreas Christensen during the English League Cup semifinal, first leg, soccer match between Chelsea and Arsenal at Stamford Bridge stadium in London, Wednesday, Jan. 10, 2018. (Alastair Grant/AP)

LONDON — Cramped into Stamford Bridge media tribune was an unfamiliar occupant leaping to his feet, bellowing disapproval and kicking seats in frustration.

It’s not surprising Arsene Wenger was so exacerbated. After all, he was managing Arsenal in a League Cup semifinal.

Wenger was forced a dozen rows back from the Arsenal bench at Chelsea on Wednesday while serving the second game of a three-match touchline ban for misconduct toward a referee.

Wenger was more animated at times than his team on the pitch as the fatigue of strain of playing five games in around two weeks caught up on both teams as they laboured to a 0-0 draw in the first leg.

The London rivals only met a week ago, although that draw was a 2-2 Premier League thriller. And they will face off again in two weeks to complete the League Cup semifinal at the Emirates Stadium when Wenger is due to be back in the dugout.

While Chelsea’s Antonio Conte was in the customary managerial position patrolling the touchline on Wednesday, with his players close by to receive direct instructions, Wenger was reduced to occasional exacerbated shouts.

For once the media didn’t have to strain their ears to listen to Wenger’s howls. Every groan and muttered remark was in full earshot, every shake of the head clear to see and the benches reverberated from his kicks.

"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 sprung out of his seat at the start of the second half when Danny Welbeck was penalized for fouling Moses.

And for the manager who bemoaned last week that "referees get away" without facing English press criticism, his targets were at close quarters. Not that Wenger interacted with the media during the game, while flanked by a security guard and coach Jens Lehmann at the end of a long row of seats.

"It was frustrating," Wenger said later in the media room. "But the position was quite interesting because I was close to the bench and not too high up."

If the sight of Wenger watching his own team play from the press box was unusual, so too was Alexis Sanchez being on the bench.

Wenger’s biggest call came before the match — dropping his star forward and only sending down instructions in the second half for the Chilean to be brought on.

It was a decision, Wenger 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 can leave for free when his contract expires in June.

"I want him to stay for longer," Wenger said, optimistically trying to avoid being drawn into a discussion over a potential sale.

Would Sanchez have made the difference on the pitch from the start? Both teams were lacking the attacking sting to find a breakthrough in this stalemate.

Chelsea did look more likely to take the lead but was 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, who was handed the captain’s armband 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."

Wenger said Wilshere will miss Sunday’s Premier League game against Bournemouth. The midfielder could be back for the final part of January’s Arsenal-Chelsea trilogy 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 defence ended at the first hurdle at Nottingham Forest on Sunday and the team is sixth in the Premier League.


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