Ashburton move will make us stronger, says Wenger

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The Independent Football

It is a new year but some things, such as the propensity for either Arsène Wenger or Alex Ferguson to wind each other up, never change. In this instance, and with Arsenal hosting Manchester United tonight, it has been the latter to make the first move.

However, it is Wenger who has responded to Ferguson's assertion on Sunday that Arsenal will fail to fill their new stadium by claiming that, by contrast, the move to Ashburton Grove will make the Gunners "one of the three or four biggest clubs in the world financially". Whether either will be around to see the difference is a moot point.

As Chelsea have proved in the last two years you do not need a massive ground to become a force in English or European football. However, Wenger has long complained that Arsenal's 38,000 capacity at Highbury leaves them lagging behind United's 68,000, something that will change when Arsenal take possession of the 60,000 Ashburton Grove stadium this summer.

Speaking before the last visit of United to Highbury in a Premiership game, Wenger said: "I don't think we will struggle to fill Ashburton Grove because the following of the club is very big. There are 22,000 season ticket holders and 20,000 on the waiting list.

"It's all down to our performances. If the quality of the team is there, we will fill the new stadium. I incited the club to build the stadium because I felt this club had huge potential. Every time we play at home, compared to Manchester United, we lose 30,000 people. By the time Ashburton is paid for I think we will be one of the three or four biggest clubs in the world financially." With hopes of regaining the league title now long gone, Wenger knows that Champions' League qualification is one way of paying back the outlay on Ashburton Grove as quickly as possible.

The Gunners currently lie outside the Champions' League places and are 11 points behind Ferguson's second-placed team but, due to a quirk in the fixture list, tonight's game will be the first this season between the two teams. With Arsenal also still to play Liverpool twice in the league, Wenger sees the chance to make up ground in the race for a top-four spot.

"Don't rule us out of the Champions' League too quickly," he said. "I want to make 2006 a great year for the football club and the team is very determined to achieve that. People want to rule us out but it is up to us to prove them wrong in May. There is big potential in the side and it will come out in 2006.

"We have 33 points after 19 games and multiplied by two gives us 66 points but we want to do much better. We haven't got a lot of margin for error but nor do Liverpool or Manchester United. People are quick to draw conclusions and if we had a squad with an average age of 33 I would say we are on the way down, but we have the youngest team of the big four," he added.

While United have already bought the Serbian defender Nemanja Vidic, Wenger is more interested in addressing the issue of Jens Lehmann, whose contract runs out this summer, before adding there were no developments with Thierry Henry's contract situation. "We will sort that out in the summer," he said.