REUTERS - Arsene Wenger has played down speculation linking him with a move to Spanish champions Barcelona at the end of the season, saying his first preference would be to extend his stay at Arsenal.
Barcelona coach Luis Enrique has confirmed he will leave the club at the end of the current campaign and Wenger is among the bookmakers’ favourites to replace him.
Sevilla’s Jorge Sampaoli, Athletic Bilbao’s Ernesto Valverde, Tottenham Hotspur boss Mauricio Pochettino and Everton’s Ronald Koeman are the other leading contenders.
“No, my preference is always the same, it will remain the same,” Wenger told reporters on Thursday when asked if he was interested in the Barcelona job.
”I’ve been here 20 years and many times had the opportunity to leave. I don’t have to convince you my preference has always been Arsenal.
“I am not looking for jobs of other clubs or jobs of other people. I am just focusing on getting to the next level and try to improve. Competent managers always try to get better, to reinvent themselves.”
The annual outcry for Wenger’s head has grown louder than ever this season following Arsenal’s 5-1 defeat by Bayern Munich in the first leg of their last-16 clash in the Champions League last month.
Wenger, who is out of contract at the end of the season, gave his strongest hint in years that he could leave Arsenal in the wake of that defeat, saying he would definitely manage next season, but did not know if it would be “somewhere else”.
Arsenal, who are fourth in the Premier League, visit fifth-placed Liverpool on Saturday after a break of almost two weeks, and Wenger said his players needed to find their rhythm fast to avoid losing at Anfield.
“For us, after a little break, it’s important to switch on quickly,” he added. “After a break, it’s important you are ready from the start. For us, it’s vital to start strongly at Liverpool.”
Midfielder Aaron Ramsey will be in the squad after recovering from a calf strain, along with defender Laurent Koscielny, who missed Arsenal’s 2-0 FA Cup win over Sutton United last month with a hamstring problem.
Midfielder Mohamed Elneny is out for three weeks with an ankle injury.
Reporting by Simon Jennings in Bengaluru; Editing by Jon Boyle