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Wenger fury at Wembley pitch

ARSENE Wenger had some harsh words for the Wembley grounds crew on Saturday after Arsenal's 1-2 loss to Chelsea in the FA Cup semifinals, calling the pitch "a disaster" and "laughable."

However, Wenger said he refused to blame the loss on the playing surface, as some Arsenal fans were left questioning the manager's decision to gamble by putting midfielders Andrei Arshavin, Samir Nasri and Alex Song on the bench.

But still, Wenger blasted Wembley officials for not producing a better field in a stadium that cost 800 million pounds (US$1.2 billion) to build.

"You spend all that money on the stadium and still have no pitch. It is laughable," Wenger said. "It's not football. The quality of the pitch is a disaster."

But Wenger is likely to face criticism as well for his team selection, with audible mumbles from fans across the stadium when the lineups were announced. Wenger had hinted at using Song as center back because of his depleted defense - with injuries to William Gallas, Johan Djourou, Gael Clichy and Bacary Sagna - but said the Cameroon international needed a rest after a tough match schedule.

Wenger instead chose the 31-year-old Mikael Silvestre to partner with Kolo Toure at center back. However, Silvestre was beaten by Didier Drogba to the ball for the deciding goal in the 84th.

"I believe that when you do not play well some days you always regret (your decisions)," Wenger said. "I'm not sure if he (Song) could have stopped the ball in the air on the second goal. We are a team who has eight games in 24 days, and you cannot play the same players in every game," he said.

Nasri and Arshavin, meanwhile, were benched because Wenger wanted more physical players in midfield.

"We know they are dangerous on set-pieces and we are a bit short," he said. "Plus they have some tall boys who make it physical in midfield, and we needed a player like (Abou) Diaby to be capable of fighting against them."

Arshavin and Nasri eventually came on late, and the Russian playmaker came close to an equalizer in the final minutes.

After Theo Walcott gave Arsenal an 18th-minute lead at Wembley, Florent Malouda equalized in the 32nd. But Drogba broke away from the Gunners defense to score the winner and Chelsea will face either Manchester United or Everton, who meet at Wembley in the other semifinal later yesterday.

"I think it was highly deserved," said Chelsea's temporary manager, Guus Hiddink. "It's very nice to work with these guys. They always deliver."

In the Premier League, Sunderland and Stoke both boosted their chances of avoiding relegation with 1-0 wins. Stoke beat visiting Blackburn through a 75th-minute goal by Liam Lawrence to move nine points clear of the relegation zone and push Rovers deeper into trouble, while Djibril Cisse scored just before halftime to give Sunderland victory against Hull.

While Stoke now looks to be safe from the drop, Sunderland is still in danger despite moving above Blackburn and Hull into 15th place.

The northeastern club has 35 points, one more than the teams it leapfrogged and four more than 18th-place Middlesbrough, which stayed in the relegation zone after a 0-0 draw with Fulham.


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