Cup plays second fiddle to European goal for Wenger

Arsenal may sacrifice domestic silver for main prize
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The Independent Football

In seven previous campaigns, the club have progressed no further than the quarter-finals, losing to Valencia in 2001 and Chelsea three years later. Arsenal play away to Sparta Prague on Tuesday hoping to equal their best start in the competition with a third successive victory, despite being burdened by an injury list that includes Thierry Henry, Sol Campbell, Ashley Cole and now Alexander Hleb.

"I would be unfulfilled if I didn't win the Champions' League, but I will do it," Wenger declared. "We live in a society where they never say what you do well but always say what you've not done. It's quite amazing that in France I was known as a guy who brings success in Europe. Monaco had never in their history made more than the first round in any European competition. Then we were in the semi-final of the Champions' League and the semi-final of the Cup-Winners' Cup. And here, people say, 'He cannot do it in Europe'."

Although equally proud of reaching five FA Cup finals and two semi-finals in eight years, Wenger believes that long runs in that competition have handicapped the team in Europe, and he is now prepared to prioritise more ruthlessly. "Because we've always done well in the FA Cup, we've put too much energy into it when it conflicts with the Champions' League," he said.

"I remember having replays in midweek just before the Champions' League and we left a little bit too much energy in it - like Sheffield United last season the week before Bayern Munich, when we lacked a little bit in the last 20 or 30 minutes. The same happened the year before, playing Manchester United and then Chelsea.

"The FA Cup means a lot to me, I'm very proud of having won it four times, because not many managers can say that. But having won it four times, if I had to choose between the FA Cup and the Champions' League, of course I'd give priority to the Champions' League."

There is a financial motive behind that choice as well, for after eight successive campaigns among the European élite, Wenger accepts that neither Arse- nal's supporters nor their money-men would settle for anything less. "It [the Champions' League] is vital to keep the club at the level it is at the moment, because it gives you that income that puts us up to a competitive level with the other teams," he said. "If you really want to be comfortable, you have to be there every year. It is extra pressure, but it's part of the game for everybody."

While Chelsea have rules of their own, the same imperative applies to Manchester United, who face Lille on Tuesday with Sir Alex Ferguson demanding a second home win in the group before the return game a fortnight later, which has been switched to Paris, the venue for the final in May. "I always say if you win your home games in the group stages it virtually guarantees you progress," Ferguson said. "Then you look for something away from home. We got a point at Villarreal, and if we can win on Tuesday, we have the advantage of going to play in the Stade de France, which is really a game on a neutral ground. I think the players will enjoy playing there, so hopefully we can continue from the Benfica match, which I thought was a good performance and a good result. Hopefully it will give us an advan-tage, particularly with Benfica and Villarreal playing a double- header against each other."

Ferguson will persevere with Alan Smith in the centre of midfield, adamant that he could be the eventual replacement for Roy Keane, despite lacking natural defensive qualities. "I have been very impressed with Alan, I think he is an outstanding person with a strong character and a determination about him.

"He has a lot of the characteristics I liken to Roy, and that is why we were prepared to try it. The way that Alan has taken to the job does encourage me that he can do it."

With Chelsea at home to Real Betis and Liverpool facing Anderlecht in the same group, there is reason to believe it might be another profitable week for the English clubs, whose joint Champions' League record so far this season is five wins and three draws from eight games.

The British challenge


Everything is running Arsenal's way in this group, from Dennis Bergkamp's winning goal at home to the minnows of Thun to the latter's almost equally late winner against Sparta two weeks ago. The Czechs, now under new management, failed to win their previous home game against Ajax, so another victory for Arsène Wenger's team here would virtually put them through.

Danger rival: Luka Zelenka


Although they made hard work of defeating Benfica with Ruud van Nistelrooy's late goal, the victory following on from a goalless draw at Villarreal established United in a strong position in the group. Lille, with no goals and only one point from their opening matches, are again in the shadow domestically of Lyon, and an early goal at Old Trafford would probably cause them to crumble.

Danger rival: Mat Moussilou.


Like Arsenal and United, Liverpool - European champions, lest we forget - are group leaders about to play a double-header against the bottom side in the section. The ease of Chelsea's Premiership victory at Anfield suggested that will not last, but a draw and a win against Anderlecht would leave Rafa Benitez's side well placed to reach the knock-out stage of this lucrative competition.

Danger rival: Serhat Akin.


The Spaniards, unable to recover from Liverpool's early two-goal salvo in the opening game, did better in winning away to Anderlecht with a goal by Ricardo Oliveira (left). The Brazilian will need careful watching by John Terry and Ricardo Carvalho, and Chelsea will have to be livelier than in the dull 1-0 win over the Belgian side Anderlecht at Stamford Bridge. Damien Duff is injured. Danger rival: Ricardo Oliveira.


Following the Bratislava side's 5-0 demolition of Celtic in the qualifying round, Glaswegians may have been less astonished than other observers by their performance away to Porto, recovering from 2-0 down to win 3-2. That left them with an identical record to Rangers and as the two sides now appear to be playing for second place, these games are critical.

Danger rival: Juraj Halenar.