Exhaustion, bans and injuries have Arsenal worried

The Gunners' season kicks off tonight with a Champions' League qualifier in Zagreb. It could not have come at a worse time, writes Jason Burt
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The Independent Football

No Thierry Henry, no Jens Lehmann, no Fredrik Ljungberg, Philippe Senderos, Gaël Clichy, Abou Diaby - and no Ashley Cole. Arsenal's list of absentees as they arrived in Croatia last night made damaging reading for their prospects of progressing into the Champions' League group stages.

Failing to overcome Dynamo Zagreb is, however, unthinkable and Arsenal's manager, Arsène Wenger, acknowledged as much when he said: "We want to try to win but above all we don't want to damage our chances of qualifying."

A tight contest would do him fine. That was said with the return leg at the Emirates Stadium in mind. In two weeks' time, Wenger contended his team would be reinforced and in improved condition. "We will be in better shape," he said.

The big Gunners will be back. But the World Cup, with 16 Arsenal players taking part, has bitten hard. A combination of exhaustion, injury and Lehmann's suspension, after being dismissed in last season's Champions' League final, has caused a mini-crisis. Added to that is the fact that, after they finished fourth in the Premiership, having to qualify in this manner is relatively unknown territory for Arsenal and Wenger.

Although the manager remains confident, it is an uncomfortable situation. His professed faith in the quality of his squad, emboldened by their encouraging pre-season form, not least in last Friday's demolition of AZ Alkmaar, is undermined by their unquestionable lack of experience. They are also entering the most hostile of footballing environments.

"I have seen Zagreb on tape," Wenger said. "They are a very good team and this is a tricky game for us. I have known Zagreb for a long time and it is always very intense down there. They usually have 5,000 or 6,000, but for this game they could have sold 200,000. Croatia is always a very intense football country."

Wenger is acutely aware that the season for Dynamo - who beat the Lithuanians FK Ekranas 9-3 on aggregate in the previous round - has already started. "The first factor is that they are a good side. The second one is that they are ahead of us physically," he said. "In a very intense game 90 minutes will be difficult for us."

Wenger also spoke of the changes in Croatian football. "They have rich people in this country now who can build teams. They have players from abroad - Brazilians. It looks like slowly the financial potential of clubs in former Eastern European countries is coming up to our level. That means they can attract good players."

There are, indeed, four Brazilians, including the striker Eduardo da Silva, in the Dynamo squad while this summer they recruited the veteran German defender Jens Nowotny from Bayer Leverkusen - a move that would have been unheard of until recently. Dynamo have dominated Croatian football for 15 years, winning eight League titles including three consecutive League and Cup doubles, and will be no pushover.

Still, Wenger said there was little to fear. "I am not worried about the atmosphere at all," he said. "I am more focused on the idea that we want to be completely right from the start and can cope with the physical pressure. We have to play to our strengths: skill, passing and speed."

There is one more concern with the apparently poor state of Dynamo's pitch. "In their last game on Friday it was very rainy and it has damaged the pitch a lot," Wenger said. "I hope that the pitch will be good enough to play our game."

The importance of making it to the group stages is not lost on anybody at Arsenal. Negotiating the tie is crucial to the club's planning for the season and would, also, affect the players they can attract. Wenger is certainly in the market for a defender and another midfielder. Once more the manager is being linked to a move for Marseilles' Franck Ribéry, who was left out of his club's opening League game at the weekend, although he also retains an interest in West Ham's Yossi Benayoun.

Arsenal would also be keen on taking William Gallas from Chelsea, although their prospects of doing that, despite the obvious links to a deal with Cole, and the defender's desire to leave, are slim. He will most probably have to see out the final year of his contract at Stamford Bridge before he can go. Wenger would not be drawn on specific targets yesterday but is understood to be in the market for established players who can add that necessary guile. And boost confidence.

"I'm in football for one reason, to play the football I love. To play the football I love I need the players who can play the game I love and until now we always managed to do that," he said. "There are plenty of players in the world who want to join us." Not reaching the Champions' League may, however, change that.