Cole and Campbell forced out of Madrid trip

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The Independent Football

With the first leg of Arsenal's Champions' League match against Real Madrid only 10 days away, Arsène Wenger is preparing to face Ronaldo, Zinedine Zidane, Robinho et al with only one first-choice defender.

Having returned to training after going AWOL last week, Sol Campbell has now picked up an ankle problem, with Wenger dismissing claims that the injury was a convenient excuse to keep his player out of the spotlight. Ashley Cole also made a recent return to action after four months out only to pull a thigh muscle.

Allied to the right-back Lauren's absence for the rest of the season, Arsenal will only have centre-back Kolo Touré in situ when they face the Spanish giants in the Bernabeu Stadium. And that is assuming the Ivory Coast international came through the African Nations' Cup final in Cairo last night unscathed.

Despite the Champions' League being the Gunners' only chance of silverware this season, Wenger refused to dwell on the fact that he will be forced to choose a line-up that is so short on experience. He also claimed that today's game against Bolton Wanderers, who have beaten Arsenal twice already this season, was more vital than the match against the men from the Spanish capital.

"The most important thing is Bolton - Madrid I don't care at the moment," he said. "What is much more important is we have a good opportunity to get back into the top four"

Wenger, who saw Campbell walk out on Arsenal during their home defeat to West Ham 10 days ago, does at least believe that the 31-year-old's spirits are higher than when he left Highbury at half-time in that game, having been responsible for two of the goals.

"It wasn't his proudest moment," the manager said. "His state of mind is good but he is disappointed because he wanted to play today. He knew he let us down against West Ham. He wanted to come back and help the guys but then unfortunately he got this injury and he's out."

However, Campbell's improved spirits are no good to Arsenal, who will miss his experience against players like Ronaldo, whom he kept quiet when England faced Brazil in the quarter-finals of the last World Cup. Wenger also added that with the nature of his ankle problem and bone bruising, he is a serious doubt for the return leg of the last-16 tie in early March. "It will be a very close call," he said.

Talking about Cole's chances of making a return to the Bernabeu, where he was racially abused in late 2004, Wenger also feels that it is highly unlikely he will feature either.

"I wouldn't say [he has] zero chance to play them," he said. "But there is very, very little because he has been out for four months and to go into that sort of match with that intensity... He has not practised with the team, he is training with the fitness coach."

Looking on the bright side, Wenger was looking forward to welcoming back both Touré, who has been outstanding in helping his country reach the African Nations' Cup final, and Emmanuel Eboue, Touré's compatriot and his country's first-choice right-back. With Lauren's injury, Eboue should also now get his chance for Arsenal. "We hope they are back this weekend so we should have two more defenders for Madrid," Wenger said.

Wenger also backed the FA in looking for a British man to become the next England manager.

With the increasing belief that the FA will ask Martin O'Neill to replace Sven Goran Eriksson, Wenger said that someone from these shores is needed. "In the national team it is not just about football at that level," the Frenchman said. "It is easier to be accepted when you are from the country you manage."