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High-strung Wenger says Sanchez reports “completely false”

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Arsenal’s manager Arsene Wenger was in a combative mood on Monday.

[ MORE: 3 things on Liverpool-Arsenal

After losing 2-1 at Liverpool on Saturday — their third defeat in their last four PL games — Wenger’s side slipped up in the top four race as they’re now 13 points behind leaders Chelsea.

To compound matters the Gunners boss was heavily criticized for benching top scorer and star player Alexis Sanchez.

Wenger has claimed Sanchez’s omission was purely tactical as he went with Danny Welbeck and Olivier Giroud up top for a more direct approach but numerous reports have since circulated suggesting that the Chilean forward was involved in a training ground spat with his teammates last week.

Speaking ahead of Arsenal’s UEFA Champions League Round of 16 second leg clash against Bayern Munich on Tuesday (Arsenal trail 5-1 from the first leg) at the Emirates, Wenger said “nothing happened” and the reports were “completely false” and had this to say about Sanchez’s current attitude.

“I explained after the game at Liverpool that I decided to go for a more direct option in the game. That was the unique reason in my decision,” Wenger explained. “For the rest, his attitude, he is a committed player sometimes with excessive behaviors but you have that so many times in the history in many squads.”

He then described his current relationship with Sanchez, while showing some annoyance when asked about the forward not yet agreeing to a new contract.

“Honest and normal, like with every single player,” Wenger said. “Alexis Sanchez has 15 months left on his contract so the decision depends on Arsenal Football Club, not on anybody else.”

Wenger then jumped in as reporters grilled club captain Per Mertesacker, who was sat alongside him in the press conference, about their support for Wenger and if the players want him to stay at the Emirates Stadium next season.

The Frenchman, whose contract runs out this summer, stated the players did not decide who the manager would be, the board do, and then gave this rallying call.

“I think we are in the best club in the world and we have to show pride and commitment to defend the pride of this club,” Wenger said. “It is not about the politics. We are not in a political club here, we are in the performance. I have to perform and the players have to perform.”

After seemingly months of criticism of him and his players, Wenger is hitting back.

This siege mentality could hold them in good stead for the rest of the season but with so much uncertainty surrounding the future of Sanchez, Mesut Ozil and Wenger himself there are still plenty of distractions. Wenger’s decision to call these reports false will somewhat clear them up and he was seen shaking Sanchez’s hand before training on Monday at their London Colney home.

That said, his comments saying Sanchez as “excessive behaviors” leaves the door open for some intrigue as to what has gone on behind-the-scenes. Sanchez is a notoriously hard trainer and is upset when he isn’t picked to play in a third round League Cup game, let alone a massive Premier League battle away at a top four rival.

Don’t expect this situation to quieten down between now and the end of the season.

Timbers sign Peruvian winger Andy Polo from Liga MX’s Morelia

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PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) The Portland Timbers have acquired winger Andy Polo on loan from Liga MX club Monarcas Morelia for the upcoming season.

The 23-year-old native of Peru played in 25 matches last year for Morelia and made six starts with two goals.

He’s also World Cup-bound, having appeared in Peru’s two-legged playoff against New Zealand in November. Peru won 2-0 on aggregate. Overall, he’s appeared with the Peruvian national team 15 times since his senior debut in 2016.

“Andy is a versatile, young player who will add another element to our attack, and we believe that he has further upside to his development,” Timbers coach Giovanni Savarese said in a statement.

The Timbers used targeted allocation money and have a purchase option. Polo’s arrival is pending a physical and receipt of a visa.

He will occupy an international roster spot.

Can Man United still sign Sanchez without Mkhitaryan swap?

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The answer to the (first) titled question is, undoubtedly, yes.

[ MORE: Wednesday’s transfer rumor roundup | Tuesday | Friday ]

The latter question — the “will they?” — remains a relative unknown at this point, but if reports out of the UK are to be believed, Manchester United are just as likely to send $40 million (or so) Arsenal’s way in exchange for Alexis Sanchez, should Henrikh Mkhitaryan refuse the move by declining any contract offers from the Gunners.

[ MORE: Conte bewildered VAR not used in Chelsea PK controversies ]

The thinking, at least for the last few days since Man United somewhat unexpectedly entered the Sanchez sweepstakes, was that swapping the Armenian for the Chilean was the obvious — and, perhaps only — way forward. Call it special circumstances or an obvious audible, but that’s not necessarily the case — from the Guardian:

“It is understood that if Mkhitaryan does not leave Mourinho believes that, given the club’s robust finances, [Man United executive vice-chairman] Ed Woodward could still sanction a move for a player who would potentially vastly improve United.”

By the time Sanchez is signed, sealed and delivered, United will have also paid Sanchez and his agent, Fernando Felicevich, massive signing-on fees that could total another $30 million. No matter the order in which the Sanchez-Mkhitaryan saga plays out, United will come out ahead with a superior player at a massively discounted price — should Sanchez ultimately move to Old Trafford, of course.

Conte bewildered VAR not used in Chelsea PK controversies

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If the FA, English football’s governing body, is insistent upon testing video-assistant refereeing (VAR) as they have done in recent FA Cup and League Cup fixtures, Antonio Conte believes they should darn well use it.

[ MORE: Wednesday’s transfer rumor roundup | Tuesday | Friday ]

Following his Chelsea side’s penalty-shootout victory over Norwich City in an FA Cup third-round replay on Wednesday, Conte was equal parts frustrated and confused by the fact that video-referee Mike Jones failed to prompt referee Graham Scott to consult the on-trial system on multiple occasions.

Most notably, Chelsea’s 92nd-minute (extra-time) penalty shout following Timm Klose‘s tackle on Willian. Scott, instead, booked the Brazilian for diving — one of three cards, all shown to Chelsea players, for simulation on the night — and that was that.

“If you watch the replay you see very clearly it is a penalty,” said Conte after the game — quotes from the BBC:

“I think that there was a penalty but not on [Alvaro] Morata — on Willian.

“With Willian, the referee heard what the other referee watched and decided to continue to play. If we want to try to use this new system, it is important for the referee to wait, especially in this incident that is not so clear.

“And then when the referee that is watching had a doubt, he has to call the referee to watch and he can make a decision. The referee on the pitch has to make the decision, not one off the pitch.

“We can improve it for sure but we need to try to take the best solution. The final decision is for the ref on the pitch. Otherwise, why is there this ref?

“The mistake wasn’t of the ref on the pitch but the person watching. When you see this, you have to call the referee.”

VAR was used in another third-round replay, on Tuesday, and helped to correctly rule Leicester City striker Kelechi Iheanacho as being in an onside position when he scored his side’s second goal. While offside/onside calls are much clearer, cut-and-dry decisions to make — and with the aid of a natural stoppage in play — clearly much work lies ahead with regard to the process of determining whether the referee has made a “clear and obvious error,” which remains the threshold for using VAR, in instances of fouls/diving.

Copa QF: Messi misses PK, Barca’s 29-game unbeaten run ends

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MADRID (AP) — Lionel Messi missed a penalty and Barcelona conceded late as its 29-match unbeaten streak ended in a 1-0 loss to city rival Espanyol in the first leg of their Copa del Rey quarterfinal on Wednesday.

Messi failed from the spot in the 62nd minute, his shot brilliantly saved by goalkeeper Diego Lopez.

Youngster Oscar Melendo netted the winner for the hosts in the 88th with his first goal as a professional.

“I have no words, I was looking forward to this first goal,” said the 20-year-old Melendo, who had come on as a substitute in the second half.

It was Espanyol’s first win against Barcelona at its RCDE Stadium.

The second leg of the Catalan derby is next week at Camp Nou.

Barcelona hadn’t lost since a 2-0 defeat by Real Madrid in the second leg of the Spanish Super Cup on Aug. 16. It had won 23 of its last 29 matches in all competitions.

“We knew we would lose one day,” Barcelona midfielder Sergio Busquets said. “The positive thing is that in a week we have a chance to rebound and advance.”

Messi had his chance from the spot after Sergi Roberto was fouled by Esteban Granero, but his low shot into the right corner was stopped as Diego Lopez dived to his left to tip the ball away.

It was a rare miss for Messi, who is having a stellar season and is the Spanish league’s top scorer with 17 goals.

“The penalty save gave us the boost that we needed,” Melendo said. “We were playing too defensively.”

Melendo netted the winner with a low shot from the middle of the area after a well-timed pass by Marc Navarro.

Barcelona coach Ernesto Valverde did not use all of the team’s regular starters, leaving players such as Luis Suarez on the bench.

The match was interrupted for a few minutes in the 76th after Barcelona goalkeeper Jasper Cillessen was hit by an object thrown by fans behind his goal.

Barcelona midfielder Paulinho was replaced in the second half because of a foot injury.