Domestic chase fails to console Arsenal

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The Independent Online

Of the dozen matches Arsenal played in the Champions' League this term, they won five, drew one and lost six. Quite clearly, they did not deserve to qualify for the quarter-finals. Even after Wednesday's 1-0 defeat by Juventus, Arsène Wenger insisted his team were good enough to win it but results, especially away from home, have not borne out this faith.

Arsenal do have a nucleus of players of the highest class: Thierry Henry, Patrick Vieira, Robert Pires, Dennis Bergkamp and Fredrik Ljungberg. David Seaman, Ashley Cole, Lauren and Martin Keown provide excellent support. However, the rest of the squad was lacking. In a season when Arsenal were severely hit by injuries and, as usual, suffered suspensions, it showed.

Wenger knows. "We need to keep this group together and strengthen," he said as he pondered the club's third failure in four campaigns to reach the last eight. Though Arsenal fans worry that the suspension incurred by Vieira on Wednesday will affect Real Madrid rather than the Gunners, the club insist the France midfielder will stay. Wenger added: "We have more players who want to join us than players who want to leave. Our problem is turning players down, big players."

One aspirant is Marc van Bommel, of PSV Eindhoven, and he would provide the partner Vieira has lacked since Emmanuel Petit left. Djibril Cissé, the Auxerre striker, has attracted Wenger's attention and, assuming Bergkamp still refuses to fly, could be a better foil for Henry than the fitful Sylvain Wiltord or lackadaisical Nwankwo Kanu. Jermaine Pennant and Francis Jeffers should also be more involved. At the back, Arsenal will hope for fewer injuries, and for further progress by Matthew Upson and Richard Wright.

Money will be made available but players such as Wiltord, Kanu, Oleg Luzhny, Junichi Inamoto, Gilles Grimandi and even Ray Parlour could be sacrificed to raise more funds. Lee Dixon and, possibly, Tony Adams are likely to retire.

Before then the squad have a domestic Double to chase and the only consolation now is the easing of their fixture congestion. Several players suggested this could be significant, though all stressed they would rather still be in the Champions' League.

Their exit means they will now be able to visit Charlton, as scheduled, on Easter Monday and probably host West Ham on 9 April. The only remaining complication will occur if they defeat Newcastle United in Saturday's FA Cup sixth-round replay. The semi-finals are scheduled on the same weekend as Arsenal are due to visit Old Trafford. This potential Premiership decider, would thus be pencilled in, to the delight of Sky, for 8 May, the last week of the season.

Manchester United and Liverpool, meanwhile, will discover their quarter-final opponents when the European Cup draw is made in Switzerland at lunchtime today. It could be each other. The only provisos are that group winners cannot meet each other and neither can teams from the same group. Thus United, who will play their first leg away on April 2 or 3, will meet Liverpool, Deportivo La Coruña or Panathinaikos. Liverpool will face United, Real Madrid or Bayer Leverkusen. The other teams in the draw are Barcelona and Bayern Munich. The second legs will be on 9 and 10 April. Semi-final pairings will also be drawn today.

The last time two English clubs met in the European Cup was in 1978 when Liverpool, the holders, were knocked out by Nottingham Forest in the first round. United have not played an English team in Europe since knocking Everton out of the Fairs' Cup 37 seasons ago.

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