LONDON, September 24- Arsene Wenger saluted Mathieu Flamini’s decision to fight for his place after the French midfielder’s brilliant brace fired Arsenal’s 2-1 League Cup triumph at bitter rivals Tottenham.
Flamini was Arsenal’s unlikely hero at White Hart Lane as he scored his first goals since March in his first appearance of the season to earn his side a fourth round tie at second tier Sheffield Wednesday.
The 31-year-old, who came close to leaving Arsenal in the last transfer window, punished Tottenham goalkeeper Michel Vorm’s error to open the scoring from close-range in the first half of Wednesday’s fiercely contested third round tie.
Then Flamini stole the show by lashing a sublime 78th-minute volley past Vorm from 20 yards after Tottenham had equalised through a Calum Chambers own goal.
Wenger revealed he had told Flamini he was free to leave before the start of the season, but he was impressed with the way the veteran decided to stick around and fight for his place in his second spell at the club.
“You do not expect Mathieu Flamini to score two goals, but he was certainly frustrated for a long time, and he went for it. He scored two good goals,” Wenger said.
“He had worked very hard recently. He was focused and I wanted him to strengthen our defensive midfield.
“He is a fighter, he is a winner as well. I told him at the start of the season it might be difficult to be a starter, but he decided to stay and he has been fighting.
“I fought to keep him but he is at an age when you always consider it is better to let them go if they are not focused but he wanted to stay.”
After successive defeats to Dinamo Zagreb and then Chelsea, Wenger was pleased to see his players’ spirit remains intact.
“Overall we responded well mentally and physically to the challenge we faced,” he said.
“We were unlucky to concede the own goal and still found the resources to score the winner. Tottenham dropped a little bit around 70 minutes and we found more space when Alexis Sanchez came on.”
Meanwhile, Wenger admits he is still seething over the way referee Mike Dean handled Arsenal’s controversial 2-0 defeat at Chelsea at the weekend.
Dean failed to send off Chelsea striker Diego Costa for whacking Laurent Koscielny in the face and then compounded the error by dismissing Arsenal’s Gabriel moments later for kicking Costa.
Replays later showed that Gabriel hadn’t made contact with Costa so his three-match ban was overturned by the Football Association, while Costa was retrospectively given a three-game suspension for his antics.
However, Wenger took little solace from the FA’s decisions.
“They repair five percent of the damage that was done to us. Instead of us playing 11 against 10 we played 10 against 11,” Wenger said. “It just shows that they decided after the game what should have happened during the game.
“I have watched the game again. There were some incidents in this game that were handled too lightly.
“It’s better I don’t talk about it because I’m still angry about it. I’m in a job where sometimes you have to swallow things that are not right.”
Tottenham manager Mauricio Pochettino made eight changes to his team but insisted he was right to make the switches despite a first defeat in four matches.
“We missed the opportunity to win. We dominated the second half and had the better chances,” he said.
“In general the performance was good, but both the goals we conceded were a little bit lucky and maybe we made some mistakes. This is football.
“I don’t regret making the changes. There are always mistakes in football. I remember (Diego) Maradona missed a penalty once. Players are not machines.”
Second-tier Sheffield Wednesday’s reward for eliminating Premier League strugglers Newcastle United in the League Cup on Wednesday was a home tie with Arsenal in the fourth-round draw.
Wednesday won 1-0 at St James’ Park courtesy of a late Lewis McGugan strike and were then paired with Arsenal, who won 2-1 at Tottenham Hotspur courtesy of an unlikely double by Mathieu Flamini.
After skirting humiliation by edging fourth-tier Carlisle United 3-2 on penalties following a 1-1 draw at Anfield, Liverpool were drawn to face Bournemouth.
Premier League leaders Manchester City will play Crystal Palace, while League Cup holders Chelsea also face an all-top-flight tie away at Stoke City.
Manchester United, meanwhile, will entertain Championship side Middlesbrough after overcoming Ipswich Town 3-0.
English League Cup fourth-round draw made on Wednesday (ties to be played the week commencing October 26):
Man City v Crystal Palace
Liverpool v Bournemouth
Man Utd v Middlesbrough
Everton v Norwich
Southampton v Aston Villa
Sheff Wed v Arsenal
Hull v Leicester
Stoke v Chelsea