Football: Wenger warns over consolation league

Norman Fox hears Arsenal manager argue against the dilution of champions
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BEATING Panathinaikos with a team mainly comprised of reserves offered Arsene Wenger some welcome evidence to argue that his Arsenal squad was not as shallow as suggested. In reality, though, he is the last person to be satisfied with such tenuous consolation for largely self- inflicted elimination from this season's European campaign.

He detests consolation prizes, which is why he is so against seeing the Champions' League broadened to such an extent that it becomes a consolation competition for teams who are not even good enough to be runners-up in their own national championships. That is also the reason why he sees today's match against the league leaders at Villa Park as the most important of the season: a game fit for champions.

Wenger believes that the Champions' League has already been watered down enough. "It should be for champions," he said, and if Villa, with their almost entirely home-bred team, should finally take Arsenal's domestic title away from his cosmopolitan collection, "I would say that would be a triumph for the quality of their team, not a matter of the players' nationalities."

He says he would not complain if the clock could be turned back and at the end of the season if Arsenal finished second they were not allowed to compete in the European Cup. The club's accountants might disagree, as would many fans, but his principled stand emphasises why he sees today's game as a crucial opportunity to have a nearly full-strength team start their title defence afresh.

Being so totally against expanding the Champions' League, he will only be satisfied to qualify for next season's competition by getting ahead of the "team in form", Villa, and finishing top. "It's no longer a Champions' League anyway. In a few years we could have the fourth or the fifth club involved. It will become just a prestige affair, prestige and money. The most important thing will not be to get in as champions but just to be in it. That's why we have to be cautious about not destroying the prestige of winning the domestic league. I still think that winning the championship is the most important."

He believes Alex Ferguson's opinion that all that matters is qualifying for the Champions' League comes from a deep personal desire to win the European Cup before he retires. "That may be why United have been more focused on the Champions' League than the league."

Wenger says that Arsenal's most important task for today and the rest of the season is "to come back to our target, quality wise" which, with Tony Adams out until February and Dennis Bergkamp suffering persistent injuries and seemingly permanent loss of what Wenger calls "that last inch of accuracy which is so important to him", could be a problem. "The positive thing is that we are still not far behind Villa, but the negative thing is that we cannot afford to drop points. I see this game as a huge test for us mentally and physically."

Martin Keown, who spent three years at Villa, agreed. "The defeat by Chelsea in the Worthington Cup really hurt the pride of the club. But we've been playing with a weakened team and just done a repair job. It doesn't surprise me that Villa are doing so well because they finished last season so strongly, which should have indicated that they would start well this time. John Gregory and Steve Harrison have done so well. Steve is one of the best coaches in the country - he brings humour and balances Gregory, but I think if Villa had lost as many players through injury as we have this season you would have to ask how well would they have done. But we're a big club and shouldn't make excuses."

Wenger is not surprised that an almost entirely English Villa team should be so successful. "We have enough good players in England, but it's never a matter of where players come from but of quality. It should be easier for English players to settle down than for foreign players but if you are going to have an English team you have to have the quality and the attitude as they have at Villa."

He says Villa have bought well, notably and ironically Paul Merson who was sold by Arsenal. "I have no regrets about letting him go. He is a great player but he needs to play in the Bergkamp role behind the two strikers. My concern was the balance of the team. He can kill you with his passing, but so can Bergkamp."

He admits that he would love to have signed Dion Dublin, who instead left Coventry for Villa. "I rate him very highly but at the time the price was very high for his age. I love him as a player and for his attitude." Generous praise for the man most likely to deal a further blow to Arsenal's comparatively disappointing season.