Arsène Wenger has stepped up the diving controversy which has engulfed his club by hinting that the Manchester United midfielder Darren Fletcher is guilty of a far greater crime than simulating a foul: deliberately and repeatedly making illegal challenges on other players.
Wenger's comments, which came as the head of the referees body Keith Hackett prepared to apologise to the Arsenal manager for his dismissal over a bottle-kicking incident after United's winner at Old Trafford, followed the refusal of Arsenal's strong penalty shout for Fletcher's clattering challenge on Andrei Arshavin in Saturday's 2-1 defeat.
"There are other points that for me are more urgent [than diving] – players who play only to make fouls and who are never punished," Wenger said. "Who make repeated fouls, and are never punished. And who get out of the game without a yellow card. That for me is more anti-football than a player who did what Eduardo did."
Wenger, whose words are likely to signal an abrupt end to the détente between himself and Fletcher's manager Sir Alex Ferguson, was asked whether he was referring to Fletcher, the one United player who consistently challenged, legally or otherwise, the control of the middle line of Arsenal's 4-3-3, Emmanuel Eboué, Denilson and Abou Diaby. "Why do you say the name?" asked Wenger with a dry smile.
He was also asked: "Why do they get away with it and Arsenal don't?" He replied: "I don't know. You should ask the question to the referees. Look at how many deliberate fouls some players make and get away with. I think it's a bigger problem because it cuts the flow of the game. People come and pay to see football, they do not come to see free-kicks. I don't know [if United set out deliberately to foul Arsenal]. You will have to ask them."
Fletcher was certainly lucky to go unpunished at least once in a match in which nine players were booked and in which Wenger was sent from the dug-out after intervention from the fourth official Lee Probert, who issued seven yellow cards in Everton's 2-1 win over Wigan Athletic yesterday. The dismissal, after Probert called over the referee Mike Dean, provoked a ludicrous situation when Wenger found himself with nowhere to go. Richard Bevan, the chief executive of the League Managers' Association has spoken to Hackett and been told that Wenger will receive an apology from the Premier Game Match Officials Board.
Bevan said: "Although correct in 'law', it was completely out of context in the game and it was followed by the nonsense over where Arsène Wenger should sit. Lee Probert totally failed to manage the situation and created a needless pressure point taking the focus from what was happening on the pitch."
The Wigan Athletic manager Roberto Martinez said that in the circumstances Probert should not have officiated at Goodison Park: "The performance of the referee is something we should put aside, but maybe they should give the referee some time and space and it wasn't ideal for him to be refereeing this game."