x Abu Dhabi, UAE Friday 21 July 2017

Fabregas ruled out of Porto clash

Trailing 2-1, Wenger is unwilling to gamble on the fitness from a hamstring injury to his inspirational Spanish captain for the Champions League match.

Fabregas picked up the hamstring injury in Saturday's game against Burnley.
Fabregas picked up the hamstring injury in Saturday's game against Burnley.

Arsene Wenger has refused to gamble the rest of Arsenal's season on one match after making the decision not to risk Cesc Fabregas in tonight's Champions League clash with Porto. Previously this season the Frenchman had been willing to use his influential Spanish midfielder when not fully fit. But after picking up a hamstring injury during Saturday's Premier League victory over Burnley that proved serious enough for him to be withdrawn from action in the first half, his manager has decided he cannot gamble on his captain, despite trailing their Portuguese visitors 2-1 going into the second leg of their last 16 clash at the Emirates Stadium. "I was hoping to put him on the bench," said Wenger. "But we cannot take a gamble.

"Ideally you want him to be there, but we want to qualify and the absence of Cesc is not any excuse at all." Back in December when Arsenal looked for a way past a stubborn Aston Villa, Wenger turned to Fabregas, who had been struggling with the same injury he is suffering with now. Fabregas came off the substitutes' bench and scored twice in a 3-0 win that boosted the belief that Arsenal could still win the Premier League, although he did injure himself getting his second and would miss three weeks of action as a consequence.

As they now sit just two points off the top and in the midst of a title tussle with Manchester United and Chelsea, it was a big moment for Arsenal's ambitions. But now, as we enter the business end of the season, the prospect of Arsenal going weeks without their talisman is unpalatable. As Wenger acknowledges: "To play him would cause significant damage and he would be out for a month." But he is confident his team are capable of overhauling their deficit, adding: "We have enough players and a strong enough squad to get around that. I think this team has good chances to make it through because we are very hungry and in a very strong position."

Wenger has often demonstrated his faith in his players, but, despite his claim that he wants to win both the Premier League and Champions League, the absence of Fabregas points to a preference of domestic success over European. The Frenchman does not want a repeat of what happened against Villa as not only is Fabregas the captain and creative inspiration, but the top scorer with 17 goals so far this term.

With Fabregas out, the pressure will be on Andrey Arshavin and, particularly, Nicklas Bendtner, to deliver. The Danish striker was noticeably wasteful in the 3-1 win against Burnley on Saturday. But Wenger was quick to defend his charge. "Sometimes you are angry with a guy who is not committed enough. You do not miss chances on purpose," he said. "For me, this was an isolated game. He's on the way up with his overall game and contribution to the team performance.

"It's important for a young striker that he misses and comes back and scores. That he isolates the factor why he missed the chances and gets it right in the next game." In nine previous attempts, Arsenal have overturned a first-leg away defeat only once - against Hajduk Split in the Uefa Cup in 1978. They needed a penalty shoot-out to overcome Roma at this same stage last season. "We have a good chance to make history. We have scored away from home and we have an advantage. We always practice penalties, but not the day before because it's a negative thought. We didn't practice the day before Roma, and let's see it in a positive way and qualify without penalties."

One omen to favour Arsenal is that Porto have never won in England in 13 visits. Last season's group stage match at the Emirates saw them ruthlessly crushed 4-0. But the visitors had pinpointed Fabregas as the man they had to stop in order to progress. His loss will lift them, said the Arsenal goalkeeper Manuel Almunia. "Cesc is the spirit of this team. Every time he is not on the pitch we miss him a lot. But all the players are convinced, and 100 per cent committed, to get through this game."

@Email:akhan@thenational.ae