Arsene Wenger has ruled out a move for Newcastle striker Demba Ba, but appeared to back-track on claims he would not re-sign Thierry Henry for a third time.
Alan Pardew’s admission that he would let Ba leave Newcastle if he did not remove the £7.5 million (€9m) release clause in his contract sparked rumours that Arsenal would make a bid for the striker.
Wenger has struggled to fill the void left by Robin van Persie, and with 11 goals so far this season Ba would seem an ideal fit, but the Frenchman denied he was interested in signing the 27-year-old.
“I like Demba Ba, yes,” the Arsenal manager said ahead of his team’s match against Newcastle this evening.
“I don’t think (this) is the right place to speak about that, because he plays against us tomorrow.
“I wouldn’t like to put Newcastle or us or him in an uncomfortable position. If you ask me, ’Do we sign Demba Ba?’ I say no.”
With Gervinho absent for the African Nations Cup next month, Wenger will be short of a forward, and Henry would be a possible short-term replacement. Earlier this week the Gunners boss played down reports linking him with a second loan move for Arsenal’s record goalscorer during the Major League Soccer off-season.
But Wenger yesterday denied he had shut the door completely on a temporary move for the 35-year-old, who scored twice in seven games during a loan spell at the Emirates Stadium last term.
“I’ve not lost interest in him,” said Wenger, who has allowed Henry to train with Arsenal for the last month.
“I’ve not completely (ruled it out). But I haven’t spoken about it with him at all.
“He’s still coming today to practice with us. We are very close (personally), but at the moment I think he has had a second spell at the club that was very successful. You have to be cautious that it’s not one time too many.”
Rather than concentrate on signing new strikers, Wenger’s top priority remains keeping one of his current crop — Theo Walcott.
Wenger has been reluctant to deploy Walcott as a striker in the past, but he now appears content to give the England international an extended run up front in the hope that he can turn him into a clinical finisher in the way club record scorer Henry did.
And Wenger thinks the influence of Henry, who has been training with Arsenal in recent weeks, has helped the former Southampton forward adapt to his new role.
“Thierry gives him advice, which is always important and Theo is a very intelligent boy,” Wenger said.
“He understands very quickly when you tell him something and that’s why I think he can do very well in this position.
“I like what I have seen of Theo through the middle.
“It’s an interesting challenge (for him). I think he can take it on. He is now 23. I decided to play Thierry Henry at 23 through the middle because you have to learn a lot before.”
Wenger reiterated his hope that Walcott will sign a new deal. “I don’t think (playing him as a striker will impact on negotiations),” Wenger said.
“I want him to stay and want him to extend his contract and I have been consistent on that. Yes (talks are ongoing) and yes (I remain optimistic he will sign).”
Wenger acknowledged his team have not been up to scratch and has promised an improvement for the remainder of the season.
“We will (do better in the second half of the season),” Wenger said.
“We rebuilt the team at the start of the season. Overall what is important for us is to improve the quality of our displays and focus just on that. Points will come.”
Wenger has the rare luxury of an almost fully-fit squad.
Olivier Giroud and Tomas Rosicky have recovered from illness, and Wenger also revealed that long-term absentees Andre Santos and Abou Diaby could be in contention for the New Year’s Day clash against Southampton.
“This is the first time since I’ve been here that we go into New Year’s Day without any injuries,” Wenger said.
“Santos and Diaby are coming back into the group on Monday so apart from Lukasz Fabianski, nobody is injured.”
Meanwhile Newcastle boss Alan Pardew has warned his side their form is simply not acceptable. In the space of 17 days, the Magpies lost to West Ham and Swansea at home and Southampton and Stoke on the road, and they reached the season’s halfway point on St Stephen’s Day with an agonising 4-3 defeat at Manchester United, meaning they have lost seven of their last nine league games.
Asked if he would be glad to see the back of the first half of the season, Pardew, who today found himself the target of an astonishing rant from United counterpart Alex Ferguson, said: “Yes, I will be.
“You take November out of the calendar year and you have to say what a bloody great year we had.
“But unfortunately November soured it and it’s put us in a tricky position for this first half of the season.
“If we had picked up six points and been sitting on 26 with fourth place at 33, we would have been all right.
“We are really six points short of actually doing very well with the squad we have had.
“But we mustn’t take our eye off it and think it’s been okay or it’s acceptable. It isn’t and we have got to do better.”
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved