'Fabregas will be the Arsenal captain this season,' insists Wenger

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The Independent Football

The inevitable question, Arsène Wenger said yesterday, had an inevitable answer. "I always said that Cesc Fabregas will be our captain next year and that we want to keep him.

And despite all the speculation that happened during the whole of last season and the summer, nothing has changed."

Wenger was responding to an enquiry about his reaction to the latest series of apparently contradictory messages from Barcelona about Fabregas, their prodigal son. Josep Maria Bartomeu, the Barcelona sporting vice-president candidate, appeared to put the pursuit of their quarry on hold when he said: "There are no imminent negotiations in place because they do not want to sell. And we respect Arsenal's decision."

But there has been talk of the No 4 shirt at the Nou Camp being kept free just in case, and Carles Puyol, the Barcelona captain, became the latest of the club's players to intervene, suggesting that Arsenal were putting their own interests before the wishes of Fabregas. Puyol, of course, was one of the players who mischievously slipped a Barcelona shirt onto Fabregas during the celebrations following Spain's World Cup win.

Wenger, though, played down those antics as youthful high spirits. "It's part of celebration. It isn't always wanted, but you can understand things like that when you are friends. But it has nothing to do with his behaviour, he has always said he is committed to the club and he has always shown it. The best way is to give your best for the club and he has always done that.

"I believe Arsenal deserves respect. If the players make some statements and jokes, we can do exactly the same but I believe we have to live with that. We do not have to complain too much. I believe it's important we focus on the targets we have together.

"There's a great attitude and spirit inside the squad and Cesc Fabregas can help us achieve these targets. He's now at an age, 23 years old, and he has just won the World Cup. I believe he will grow in authority again for next season. The biggest achievement for him now is to help us win the championship."

That, of course, would be the ideal outcome for player, manager and club. Fabregas's long-term future will probably be decided by Arsenal's success or otherwise this season, which threatens to be the sixth without a trophy. Despite the financial muscle of Manchester City and the recent pedigree of Chelsea and Manchester United, Wenger remains convinced that Arsenal will compete strongly again, and he hinted that Laurent Koscielny and Marouane Chamakh might not be the last signings of the summer.

"I have always done business very early and very late," he said. "At the moment we are still looking outside to strengthen the squad. If we find the right players we will do it."

And if he does not find the right players? "Do I think we have a team to play at the top? Looking at the players we have, I say yes. It does not go into financial consideration. I judge whether they are good enough in the championship. Have the other clubs more money or less money? It is not important. It is whether the players we have are better players or lesser players and I think we can compete with the players we have."

Wenger was speaking in advance of this weekend's Emirates Cup tournament, in which his team faces Milan today and Celtic tomorrow, without Robin van Persie, who, like Fabregas, remains on leave, and Denilson, Alexandre Song, Abou Diaby, Johan Djourou and Nicklas Bendtner, who are injured.

His reserve goalkeepers will have a chance to persuade him that the prospective signing of Mark Schwarzer from Fulham is not urgent, but he admitted that another central defender remains a priority. "Ideally yes, in number we have lost Silvestre, Campbell and Gallas and we have only signed Koscielny. Djourou is coming back so you could say we have got two but we are still two short."

Of more concern to fans will be the 11 points that Arsenal finished short of Chelsea in last season's title race. A fit, rested and fully committed Fabregas will be essential if that gap is to be closed.