Football: Champions' League - Bergkamp is already on his way to Florence

Norman Fox tells how Wenger will benefit from a Dutch traveller
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The Independent Online
DENNIS BERGKAMP'S enormous importance to Arsenal was emphasised before the club's match against Aston Villa yesterday when he told a relieved Arsene Wenger that his fear of flying would not stop his playing in all three of the club's tough away group matches in the European Champions' League, starting in Italy against Fiorentina on Tuesday. He has agreed to undertake all of the arduous journeys by sea and road.

The trip to Florence will take some 20 hours and will be the longest of the three. Arsenal will also play in Barcelona later this month and in Stockholm in November. Although Bergkamp himself will not undertake any of the driving, the strain of car travel could well leave him tired before the matches even begin. Wenger is prepared to take the risk.

He said: "Last season we certainly missed him, though it was a combination of that and several injuries which resulted in us not competing as well as we should. But travelling by road will be very tiring for Bergkamp. We shall have to assess the situation before each of the matches abroad."

Although the Arsenal manager continues to insist that the Premiership title remains the club's priority, he said yesterday: "It's a real regret to me that Arsenal have not yet played to their full potential in the Champions' League and have never done so. We need to establish the club as one of the top teams in that league.

"Historically, that's what the club is missing. You are not a great team until you have done that. Everyone abroad knows that is our situation. But this season we have a stronger squad... one that can do better than last season. As a group the players have learned and become more ambitious to do well in Europe."

His relief at hearing about Bergkamp's decision came mainly because "we are in the group of death and every club in it is a great one". During the week the Arsenal officials had looked into the logistics of getting Bergkamp to Italy by road and decided that provided the Dutchman was fit he would leave England this morning.

Wenger said that before all of the away games he would have to consider whether it would be fair to ask a player to travel so far by road if there was any doubt about his fitness. "It would be wrong to let him do all of that travelling and then have to put him on the bench."

Although Arsenal's performances abroad last season were not all bad, Wenger accepts that Bergkamp's finishing is singularly important to the team's success. "Also, if he had been available when so many of the other players were injured, obviously it would have made a difference." However, he said that on no account at this stage of the season - particularly after a less than convincing start - would he rest Bergkamp from a Premiership game to allow him more time to prepare for the travelling involved in a Champions' League match on the Continent.

Bergkamp's fear of flying began during the World Cup in 1994 when a Dutch journalist claimed to have a bomb in his luggage before a flight and the aircraft was delayed by over five hours. Later when playing in Italy he said that the problem became a chronic phobia and he began worrying about the flight home even before the matches began. At least this season Arsenal's group draw has not involved journeys as far as last season's when they were paired with Dynamo Kiev and Panathinaikos of Greece.

The importance of Arsenal making a better start to their Champions' League programme than they have in the Premiership is seen by Wenger as a problem that clubs in several of the less strong groups will not face. Fiorentina, whom he has watched this season, are, he says, typical of the sides produced by their coach, Giovanni Trapattoni.

"They are defensively secure and play quite deep. They are like snakes, they have spurts and in five minutes they can kill you and even then come back. You can feel you are on top of the game but suddenly if your concentration goes down they have the individual quality to be dangerous when it is you who think you are in control of the game. So you are thinking you are OK but suddenly one individual will do something special and score.

"A typical Italian side I would say. They offer a different danger to Barcelona, who try to build their own game and put pressure on you because they always want the ball. Fioren-tina sometimes say: `We'll let you play' but if they can kill you they won't miss their chance."

At least he can take some comfort from the fact that two players who performed well in England's otherwise depressing performance against Poland in midweek were his own central defenders, Tony Adams and Martin Keown.