Arsene Wenger's Arsenal begin their Champions League journey tonight aiming to go all the way to the final, which geographically is no distance – "Wembley is only six miles," as the manager said yesterday before conceding, "but unfortunately that is a long way." The trip will be made increasingly difficult if Arsenal maintain their current rate of picking up injuries en route.
Abou Diaby is the latest concern after being ruled out of tonight's Group H opener against SC Braga at the Emirates Stadium, with the Bolton Wanderers defender Paul Robinson angering Wenger after damaging the France midfielder's ankle. The Football Association is not taking retrospective action against Robinson, with the consequences of the tackle seeing Diaby out of action for the foreseeable future.
"The tackle was very bad," the Arsenal manager said. "I do not know for how long [he will be out]. What can I say? You ask me about the tackle and I say it's very bad and I can't protect the players – only the FA can do that.
"If I pay £50 and I go to a football game what do I want to see? Do I want to see Fabregas who plays football or do I want to see the guy who kicks you from behind?" Diaby joins key players such as Thomas Vermaelen, Theo Walcott, Robin van Persie, Nicklas Bendtner and Aaron Ramsey on the sidelines. "So it is quite a good team all out," Wenger said. Luckily for Wenger, Braga are not expected to be as physical in their approach tonight.
Wembley is actually around 11 miles from the Emirates, a little further than Wenger suggested but it appears a "long way" to Wenger, partly because he admits that his team need to develop the mentality of winners to match their technique on the ball.
"The mental side is the issue of everybody," he said. "The problem as well is that the level of competition is high and in the second part of the tournament it becomes a real cup game, when it is knockout it becomes a different competition. You have to have your best players available, the decisions to go for you and all that. We are always there, not far from Wembley. Quarters, semi-final, we've been there."
Their opening opponents are a team nicknamed Minho's Arsenalistas after taking the red and white of Arsenal when they changed their team shirts in 1921. The Portuguese side have knocked out Seville already thanks to a hat-trick from Lima, one of 13 Brazilians in their squad.
"They have a strong Brazilian influence," Wenger said. "They are physically strong and are well organised. What impresses me is that we played Porto last year, and they finished in front of Porto. Also in the qualifying round they beat Seville home and away, and that helps us to be on our toes."
Shakhtar Donetsk and FK Partizan are Arsenal's other opponents before thoughts will turn to the knockout round. Wenger feels last season's early exits for English clubs in the competition was "an accident" and the Premier League is still the strongest in Europe. "We have to show that last year was an accident," he said. "Unfortunately we went out against Barcelona who were better than us over two legs.
"We have to come back and show we can compete with them," Wenger added. "Overall I think it was an accident but we will see. I think it is the strongest league in Europe."
The injury list is a test of the depth of Wenger's squad as he is not prioritising the Premier League over performing well in Europe this season. "You cannot because we go three days later to Sunderland and that is a vital game for us," he said.
"That is as big a game as [this one] because we have no priority, we want to win something no matter what it is, championship or Champions League. For example on Saturday I selected a team just to beat Bolton, and I rotated some players who played in the national teams, but not specially looking at the Braga game."