I like the Europa League, says Wenger (worryingly for Arsenal fans)

Gunners manager defends second-tier competition as fight for Champions League place goes to wire

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The Independent Online

Arsène Wenger does not dread the prospect of Europa League football next season. In fact, the Arsenal manager praised the much derided competition, saying that it produced high-quality football, "better than many Champions League games".

There is no doubting Wenger's enthusiasm for re-qualifying for Europe's elite competition. "Of course you want to be in the Champions League," he said. But he was relaxed about the prospect of playing in the second-tier tournament in 2012-13.

"The Europa League final was a fantastic game," Wenger said the morning after Atletico Madrid beat Athletic Bilbao 3-0. "Atletico Madrid against Athletic Bilbao was fantastic to watch, much better than many Champions League games."

Tottenham Hotspur's Benoît Assou-Ekotto recently described the Europa League as "useless", but Wenger insisted that it fulfilled its main function of providing high-quality competition. "Personally, I don't feel it's a useless competition," he said. "What's a useless competition for you? For me, a good competition is when you see two good teams play a good game.

"I watched Bilbao and Atletico Madrid and I watched the whole game, didn't miss a second. That's what competition has to produce – fantastic football games. There are some boring Champions League games but, of course, you want to be in the Champions League."

Even on the issue of scheduling, Wenger did not sound particularly worried. "When you play Thursday night and Sunday it's exactly the same as Wednesday night and Saturday," he said. "If you ask me if we prefer the Europa League or Champions League, then you are completely right. You play where you have to and it's better to play there than not at all."

If Arsenal beat West Bromwich Albion tomorrow then they will finish third in the Premier League and qualify for the Champions League group stage. But if they do not, they risk finishing fourth, meaning Champions League football would be at the mercy of Chelsea's final against Bayern Munich, or even fifth.

Wenger believes it will be easier to convince leading striker Robin van Persie to stay if Arsenal are in the Champions League. "I am inclined to think 'yes'," Wenger said, "but you should ask him. I don't know whether it will have an influence on him." The manager did suggest Van Persie might stay for the last year of his deal. "Robin is not at the end of his contract, as simple as that."

Europe in the mix

* Arsenal

If Arsenal win at West Bromwich, they finish third and take the final definite Champions League place. Any other result could move them down.

* Tottenham Hotspur

To get third Tottenham need to beat Fulham and hope Arsenal fail to win. A draw would be enough if Arsenal were to lose by two goals, although they could then be superseded by Newcastle.

* Newcastle United

Newcastle could get third if they win at Everton, Arsenal lose and Spurs fail to win. Alan Pardew's side are fourth if they win and Spurs fail to do so.

*...and not forgetting

Chelsea will take the fourth Champions League place if they beat Bayern Munich in next week's final.

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