Arsene Wenger bullish over Arsenal's European hopes
Arsene Wenger has challenged his Arsenal side to set themselves up for a showdown with one of the European heavyweights by staying on course for domestic success.
The Gunners beat Partizan Belgrade 3-1 at Emirates Stadium last night, finishing the game with 10 men after Bacary Sagna's late dismissal, to secure their place in the draw for the knockout stage.
However, after finishing as only runners-up to Shakhtar Donetsk - whom they had thrashed 5-1 at Emirates Stadium earlier in the Group H campaign - the Barclays Premier League leaders will now face either one of Spanish giants Real Madrid and Barcelona, or one from German duo Bayern Munich and Schalke.
Arsenal were dumped out in the quarter-finals by Barcelona last season, but Wenger believes if they are paired again, then next year could be a whole different ball game.
"Let's be realistic, Barcelona are the super favourite at the moment," Wenger said, "but we take what we get and if it is Barcelona, it is Barcelona.
"It depends whether you have your best players available, whether we have a good level of confidence then.
"It is very difficult to predict how far you can go.
"In the last 16 it becomes a different competition, a cup competition and that means for 180 minutes you have to be at your top."
Wenger added: "Overall we are in a strong potion in the league, we are qualified in the Champions League, we are in the semi-final of the Carling and we start the FA Cup in January. There are plenty of exciting challenges in front of us, but there is room for improvement and I am confident we will.
"When we play now in the last 16 hopefully we have done well in the Premier League and the Carling Cup and we can have a high level of confidence because that will be needed."
After a lacklustre start, Robin van Persie fired the home side ahead from the penalty spot for his first goal of the season, only for Brazilian striker Cleo to net a shock equaliser on 52 minutes.
Substitute Theo Walcott volleyed Arsenal back into the lead with man-of-the-moment Samir Nasri sweeping home a third before Sagna was shown a red card for a professional foul with five minutes left.
"It was bit of a low-key game because we didn't find out pace or openings in their defence," Wenger said.
"But I felt we had the resources to score and in the last 20 minutes they would drop a little bit physically."
Van Persie netted his first goal of an injury-hit season, and feels Arsenal are growing in confidence.
"If you don't have belief you'd better stop playing football. We do believe," the Dutchman said.
On potential last-16 opponents, he added: "As a football fan, Barcelona or Madrid, but we will see."
One sour note for Arsenal was an injury to full-back Kieran Gibbs, which saw the England defender replaced after 23 minutes, and he will be assessed later today.
Partizan coach Aleksandar Stanojevic was pleased with his team's efforts despite finishing their Champions League campaign with no points.
"We had some good moments in all the matches, but made too many mistakes against quality opponents, which is why we finished bottom," he said.
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