The Cesc Fábregas transfer saga has taken yet another twist after the player was surprisingly omitted from the Arsenal squad that travelled to Lisbon on Friday night for a friendly against Benfica despite having played a full part in training in the build-up to the fixture.
Arsène Wenger had been keen to use Fábregas for the first time in pre-season at the Stadium of Light despite Barcelona's on-going ambitions to prise the 24-year-old from the Emirates Stadium before the closure of the transfer window. Yet the Spain international, who trained at London Colney on Friday, was omitted late on and the Arsenal manager said in Portugal Friday that Fábregas had been left out of the 19-man party as he lacked the fitness to feature against Benfica.
"I do not want to speak about the transfer of Fábregas because I have done that for three years now in every press conference, so I don't think there is any more need to add something," said Wenger. "I love Fábregas and I want him to stay. He is just coming back from injury and is not ready to play in a game. But he is not injured."
The lack of pre-season appearances and, consequently, match sharpness will now rule the midfielder out of Arsenal's opening Premier League fixture of the season, against Newcastle United next Saturday. "I don't think Fábregas will be ready to start the season," added Wenger. "He has been out for a long time and has had no games."
The fitness issue has offered club and player a convenient excuse, given the impasse that has long set in over Barça's attempts to re-sign the midfielder. Reports in Spain suggested a third offer of the summer had been tabled worth up to £35m but there has been no confirmation of such from Arsenal – with the Spanish club's vice-president, Josep Bartomeu, and the assistant sports director, Raul Sanllehi, having apparently left the club's tour of the United States to return to Europe and speed up a possible deal.
Regardless, a bid of that amount would still fall short of Arsenal's £40m asking price for their unsettled captain. The club's majority shareholder, Stan Kroenke, who was present at the Emirates stadium on Thursday to watch Fábregas train in front of around 5,000 supporters at an open session for club members, is understood to be backing his manager's valuation of the player.
The Spaniard's intention is still to leave London this summer, with Fábregas anxious not to become cup-tied in Europe by featuring in the Champions League play-off against Udinese, which was drawn in Nyonon Friday. The Italian club, who finished fourth in Serie A last season, represent a significant barrier to Arsenal's progress into the group stage for a 14th year in succession and will travelto England for the first leg on 16 August with the return at Stadio Friuli eight days later. That second match will be sandwiched between Arsenal's daunting league games at home to Liverpool and at Manchester United.
The draw has served to expose the potential ramifications of the Londoners' dramatic slump towards the end of last season, a sequence that condemned them to fourth place in the Premier League. While Francesco Guidolin's side have undergone something of a revamp over the summer, shedding significant talents in Alexis Sanchez to Barcelona, Cristian Zapata to Villarreal and Gokhan Inler to Napoli, they retain the prolific Antonio di Natale up front and the excellent Samir Handanovic in goal. Pablo Armero, Mauricio Isla and Kwadwo Asamoah are impressive midfielders, with Udinese considered one of the most attractive sides playing in Serie A last term.
Arsenal's prospects are not helped by Samir Nasri and Robin van Persie being suspended for the first leg, a legacy of the club's controversial exit from the competition to Barça last season. Wenger, too, will be absent from the touchline for the game following a Uefa charge for using "inappropriate language" directed at the referee, Massimo Busacca, during the 3-1 defeat in Spain.
Nasri, whose own future at the club remains in doubt, has joined Fábregas in failing to travel after suffering an ankle injury, while Laurent Koscielny, Abou Diaby, Theo Walcott and Jack Wilshere remained at home in the hope that they will be fit for the season's opening Premier League fixture. Nicklas Bendtner and Emmanuel Eboué, who are expected to leave the club before the end of the month, were also omitted from the squad with neither in Wenger's plans for the campaign ahead.
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