KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia, July 25 – Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger denied he was close to signing Spain’s Santi Cazorla as the English football giants kicked off an Asian tour 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 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 defence 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 welcome.
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 some 10,000 people attended their open training session on Monday, organisers said.
About 50,000 tickets were sold for the game against Malaysia XI, a select squad of Malaysian League players, in the 100,000-capacity Bukit Jalil National Stadium.
But 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 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 Malaysia XI, the hosts held firm and Arsenal could not find a way past goalkeeper Norazlan Razali.
Instead, just before half time, 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 line-up after the break with England internationals Theo Walcott and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain adding much needed pace.
But 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 on Friday.
The Gunners then meet local side Kitchee in Hong Kong on Sunday.
The three-stop July tour follows a successful trip to Malaysia and China last summer, when Arsenal more convincingly beat Malaysia 4-0.
On Tuesday, Fauzi Azhar, 31, a hospital worker, watched the game on a big screen with some two dozen people at an outdoor cafe serving curries and other Malaysian fare in Kuala Lumpur.
“We love the English teams like Arsenal, Liverpool and Man U and so we usually have to stay up late watching them play,” he told AFP, referring to the time difference.
“But they’re here now, and it’s exciting. Everyone I know made time to watch the game.”