Football: Arsenal feel the power of Spice

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The Independent Online
ARSENAL'S PLAN to play their first home European Champions' League game at Wembley could be thwarted by the Spice Girls, who have booked the Stadium for a concert on 16 September, the first day of this season's tournament.

After the draw for the League is made in Monaco later today, the fixtures will be drawn up and Arsenal may be drawn at home for their first match, despite having already lodged an official request with Uefa, European football's governing body, to play it away. If the Gunners - who had hoped to stage all their Champions' League home matches at Wembley - are dealt a home tie in their first game, they may have no choice but stage the match at Highbury.

"We cannot guarantee Arsenal an away game in their first fixture, because the wishes of their opponents would also have to be respected," a Uefa spokesman said yesterday.

"If they are drawn away, naturally, there is no problem. But if not, they will need to negotiate with the club they are drawn against. If the two clubs cannot agree, the match will be played in the country of the one whose name comes first out of the draw."

That eventuality would mean Arsenal playing their opening game at Highbury, where the 38,500 capacity for domestic matches would be further reduced by Uefa's insistence on massive perimeter-board advertising and places for neutral observers.

Wembley, which would accommodate more than double the number of fans allowed at Highbury, would be infinitely preferable for the Double winners, but no matter how much they really really want it, their Stadium debut may be delayed by the pop group.

Arsenal's bad news does not end there, as they are likely to come up against one of the top six clubs in Europe when the draw takes place. The top five seeded teams in the draw are the French champions, Lens, Italy's Juventus, Germany's Kaiserslautern, Spain's Barcelona and the Dutch title-holders,Ajax.

Arsenal would have been the sixth, based on the record of English clubs - largely Manchester United - in previous years, had Juventus retained the trophy in last season's final. The Italian champions, however, were beaten 1-0 by Real Madrid who, holders, have been given that seeding instead.

The Arsenal manager, Arsene Wenger, said: "It was a bad deal for us when Real Madrid won the final, because it means we will have to play against one of the seeded teams in our group."

The only silver lining that may emerge from today's draw, should it see Arsenal drawn at home, is the club will be able to count on the services of their non-flying Dutchman, Dennis Bergkamp, when it takes its Champions' League bow.

Wenger has reluctantly accepted that the striker will be unavailable for any trips that he cannot make independently by rail, road or sea. And even if that is logistically possible for some games, Wenger will not risk Bergkamp becoming so travel- fatigued that it dilutes his performance in key Premiership matches. Arsenal's next scheduled Premiership game after the opening Champions' League game is at home to Manchester United four days later, something they will be as happy about as the Spice Girls at Wembley.

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