By Richard Clarke
Robin van Persie is set to return to full training next week but Arsène Wenger insists he will not be rushed back into the side.
The Dutch striker last played for Arsenal on October 7 when he struck twice in the 3-2 win over Sunderland at Emirates Stadium. He picked up a knee injury in the international break that followed and has been sidelined ever since.
Wenger's side may have gone on to pull four points clear of their title rivals but there is certainly a clamour from the fans to see the 24-year-old back in an Arsenal shirt. Speaking to Arsenal TV Online on Thursday the manager was pleased at this new development but, at the same time, was prepared to preach patience.
"Van Persie and [Abou] Diaby are not far," he said. "From next week they will be back in normal training."
However Wenger added that a return against Steaua on Wednesday "looks early".
"We have to see how he [Van Persie] responds to contact training," the Frenchman went on. "Don't forget he has been out for seven or eight weeks and has had no contact until now so we might have to be a little bit patient."
As for the remaining three of Arsenal's injured midfield quartet, none are likely to return at Middlesbrough this weekend. And, the manager implied, there may be a need to wait for them as well.
"We have no-one coming back for Sunday," said Wenger, "and to put a date on that is very difficult. If you ask me who will be the first to come back then I think it could be Mathieu Flamini.
"Cesc and Alexander Hleb are on the same line but whether they come back next week or in two weeks I don't know."
Arsenal TV Online subscribers will be able to see the full interview on Friday morning. In it Wenger talks about: the draw against Newcastle, why Arsenal are a second-half side, being 'only four points' clear, allegations of play-acting, speculation over Jens Lehmann moving, Middlesbrough, Gareth Southgate and Jeremie Aliadiere.

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Richard Clarke 6 Dec 2007