Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger denied he was close to signing Spain’s Santi Cazorla as the English soccer giants started an Asian tour on Tuesday with a narrow 2-1 victory over hosts Malaysia.
Wenger dismissed speculation the Gunners had agreed terms with the Malaga winger and instead joked that his sights were now on the Malaysian team, following their strong performance.
“We are not close to signing Cazorla. We are still working that out,” Wenger told reporters immediately after the match in the capital Kuala Lumpur.
“Maybe I sign some Malaysian players based on their performance today. Their defense was good and their ’keeper was fantastic,” he added.
Arsenal, along with other English clubs, are hugely popular in Malaysia and elsewhere in Asia. In a bid to build up their fanbase in the region, the Gunners and other squads have gone on summer tours, enjoying rapturous welcomes.
In Malaysia, the Arsenal players were treated like rock stars, mobbed by droves of fans as they arrived by bus at their hotel on Sunday, and about 10,000 people attended their open training session on Monday, organizers said.
About 50,000 tickets were sold for the game against a Malaysia XI, a select squad of Malaysian League players, at the 100,000-capacity Bukit Jalil National Stadium.
Despite their 2-1 victory, the match exposed Arsenal’s reliance on captain Robin van Persie, their star striker and top scorer in the English Premier League last season with 37 goals, but who was absent in Malaysia.
Although the Gunners have signed German striker Lukas Podolski and Frenchman Olivier Giroud, Van Persie is still the team’s key player, but the Dutchman rejected a new contract offer earlier this month.
During much of the game against the Malaysia XI, the hosts held firm and Arsenal could not find a way past goalkeeper Norazlan Razali.
Instead, just before halftime, Mohamad Azmi Muslim hit a sweetly struck left-footer from the edge of the box, which curled past Wojciech Szczesny and into in the Arsenal goal.
The Gunners completely changed their outfield lineup after the break, with England internationals Theo Walcott and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain adding much-needed pace.
However, they still failed to carve out many clear cut chances as the Malaysians dictated the pace of the match and looked on course to score a historic victory before two late strikes denied them.
Thomas Eisfeld drew level for Arsenal from inside the penalty area and Chuks Aneke followed-up with a deflected shot, giving victory to the London club.
“We played two teams in this match. Some of the players have not had much training, which was why we had to field as many players as possible,” Wenger said.
Arsenal now head to China where they will meet English champions Manchester City — one of the clubs pursuing Van Persie — in another friendly in Beijing tomorrow.
The Gunners then meet local side Kitchee in Hong Kong on Sunday.