Wenger expects 'very uncomfortable' experience sat amongst Chelsea fans
LONDON -- Arsene Wenger is bracing for a repeat of what he called a "very uncomfortable" experience last year -- sitting in the stands among the Chelsea fans at Stamford Bridge.
Wenger is again serving a touchline ban for Wednesday's first leg of the Carabao Cup semifinals -- just as he was for last season's 3-1 Premier League away loss against the Blues. That time he had to sit wedged in among the Chelsea fans in order to have a shorter trip to and from the dressing room, since the director's box is on the opposite side of the stadium.
"I was in the middle of the crowd. [It was] very uncomfortable," said Wenger, who was sanctioned by the FA for verbally abusing referee Mike Dean. "It was not a pleasant experience. But at Chelsea you have to go on the other side to go in the director's box. So the time [it takes to] get around the stadium, it's 10 minutes played."
The Arsenal boss is still allowed to address his team before the game and at half-time, which is why he wants a quick route to the dressing rooms. He said he's not sure where he'll be sitting for Wednesday's game, but that he "will try to find a different place."
He added, though, that sitting among the supporters did have one benefit. Wenger managed to run into his own gardener, a man he'd never actually met before.
"I sat next to a guy. He says 'Hello, how are you?' And I said, 'Good afternoon.' He said, 'I'm your gardener.' And I didn't know him," Wenger said with a laugh. "He is an Arsenal fan, but he went to the game at Chelsea."
This will be Arsenal's second meeting in a week with Chelsea, following the 2-2 Premier League draw at the Emirates last Wednesday. That game featured a contentious penalty decision, with Wenger saying Eden Hazard should have been booked for a dive after going to ground following light contact from Hector Bellerin.
Wenger's comments earned a rebuke from Chelsea manager Antonio Conte, who called the 67-year-old Frenchman an "old coach" who had a habit of questioning referees.
In response, Wenger said he hadn't meant to criticize Hazard and called his behaviour "very professional."
"Am I an old coach? Yes. [Conte] is not a young coach as well, he's an old coach as well. Is it my way to question Hazard? No, I didn't blame Hazard," Wenger said.
"I'm Arsenal, Conte is Chelsea. You are objective. So you look at the pictures, and you see how Hazard goes down. And you see how quickly he takes the penalty when he gets a penalty. If he was so injured, why did he take the penalty?
"He made more of it, which is professional, basically, and shouts. And I can understand. I do not blame Hazard, I can understand Hazard. He acted in a very professional way, basically, to get the penalty for his team. He did it well."
Wenger has never won the League Cup, as it's traditionally known, in part because he has a habit of playing a very young team in the competition. But he's expected to field a strong side on Wednesday, especially after his second-string team lost at Nottingham Forest in the FA Cup on Sunday.
Wenger admitted that his team selection at Forest "backfired" but insisted he had no other option due to a number of injuries and a congested schedule. However, he cautioned that he still has several players who are "on the edge" physically and that he is "not sure that they'll be usable tomorrow."
And while Wenger has been heavily criticised by sections of the fan base in the wake of Sunday's loss, he staunchly defended his record of winning the FA Cup a record seven times -- including three in the last four years.
"People are always scandalised. Nobody has won the FA Cup more than I did. But still it is an absolute disaster [to lose]," Wenger said. "Get somebody to win it more, then I will say 'OK, well done.' But nobody in the whole history of English football did win it more.
"So I always took the competition in a serious way. I'm unhappy to go out, of course. But you must accept as well that there's no guarantee that you'll win it every year."
Mattias is ESPN FC's Arsenal correspondent. Follow him on Twitter: @MattiasKaren.