Last season they were brilliant, unstoppable. This season Arsenal are absolutely Fabregas

One lost Uefa Cup final does not do justice to Wenger's talents. Now is the time for hard proof
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The Independent Football

As a student of world football, Arsène Wenger would surely love Arsenal to win the European Cup at last in its 50th season. But no matter how hard his interrogators pushed on Friday at the club's training complex, they were met by a refusal to take on the additional pressure of setting such a target.

As a student of world football, Arsène Wenger would surely love Arsenal to win the European Cup at last in its 50th season. But no matter how hard his interrogators pushed on Friday at the club's training complex, they were met by a refusal to take on the additional pressure of setting such a target. Only too well aware of the frustration suffered in the competition over the past six years - two quarter-final defeats representing the high, or low, point - he continued to insist that winning the Premiership is the priority.

Privately, however, as he studies his videotapes of clubs from all over Europe, there must be a desire to prove himself and his club the best of them all. Three domestic titles and three FA Cups, plus an unbeaten run of record duration and unmatched style, are handsome proof of the transformation Wenger has overseen in eight years at Highbury. Just as undeniably, one Uefa Cup final (lost) does not do justice to his talents. Remarkably, he begins another Champions' League campaign this week in the company of Manchester United's Sir Alex Ferguson, Chelsea's Jose Mourinho and Liverpool's Rafael Benitez as the only one of the quartet not to have won a major European trophy.

"I believe it would be very pretentious to say we will win the European Cup, first of all because we have never done it before and secondly because it is still a cup," Wenger insisted. "If I had told you last year that Monaco would play against Porto in the final, who would have said that?

"To me, it looks like the new format in the Champions' League has become a cup again, and you cannot base a season on that. Once it's an open cup formula, anything can happen. Maybe it will be a Lyon or a Panathinaikos this time. I feel the desire to win it and would feel fulfilled by that, but I'm not stupid enough not to think the first important thing for me is the championship."

If Wenger is unwilling to spell out reasons for greater optimism this time, it may be necessary to do it for him, in the form of the evidence that his squad is the strongest yet to take on the challenge of making Arsenal Europe's best. As recently as a month ago, when Patrick Vieira seemed certain to be joining Real Madrid's crusade for a 10th crown, that claim might have been disputed. Since then, the club captain has, for whatever reasons, had a change of heart; Jose Anto-nio Reyes has proved himself a thrilling foil for Thierry Henry; Dennis Bergkamp, unwilling to be shouldered aside quite yet by the young Andalucian, is promising a typically distinguished last season or two; and a 17-year-old called Francesc Fabregas has walked into the first team and taken to English football like a duck to Hampstead pond. All this with Vieira and Sol Campbell absent injured.

Reyes, already voted Footballer of the Month for August, could be a sensation in Europe too. Fabregas will be used sparingly, though it is unlikely he would be out of his depth in Arsenal's group against PSV Eindhoven (at Highbury on Tuesday), Panathinaikos, who have lost two of their European Championship-winning Greeks, and Rosenborg. If the latter's 12 successive Norwegian titles had been achieved by a club in the old Eastern Bloc, darkest suspicion would have been aroused. In fact, their methods derive more from ruthless capitalism than any corruption, in using the regular Champions' League revenue to buy up any of the best Norwegian players they do not already own. Failure to win an away game in Europe for eight years suggests Arsenal should not worry unduly.

Overall, Arsenal, Chelsea and Man-chester United can all be said to have received a favourable draw, Liverpool - rightly, as the fourth qualifiers - less so. Coincidentally, the latter three begin against French opposition this week, and need not fear it. Mourinho, though he would have liked more time to plan his campaign, will have Chelsea prepared as meticulously for Paris Saint-Germain on Tuesday as Porto were for all their European games; he will not have to dwell on the qualities of Jerome Rothen, familiar to the Chelsea survivors as a lively left-winger with Monaco. A good result would set the London side up nicely for home games against Mourinho's old club and then CSKA of Moscow, who are lucky to have been allowed into the competition alongside Chelsea, given Roman Abramovich's links with them through Sibneft's massive sponsorship.

Liverpool will be pleased to avoid Rothen, Fernando Morientes and Dado Prso, all victims of cherry-picking by rival clubs as Didier Deschamps struggled to keep last season's runners-up together. Benitez also knows what is required to win in Europe, though he is also still seeking to impose a subtly changed style on his new club. A rousing home victory on Wednesday would be an important factor in helping Liverpool finish above Monaco, even if they were behind the group favourites, Deportivo La Coruña. Olympiakos of Greece, with or without Rivaldo, are the outsiders of the four.

Ferguson, like Wenger, knows the dangers of cup football, for United have been eliminated at the knockout stage in seven of the past eight seasons. They should qualify for the later rounds once again, against Wednesday's weakened opponents Lyon, whose striker Giovane Elber has broken his leg, Fenerbahce and Karel Poborsky's Sparta Prague.

Elsewhere, the other big guns will be taking up position and looking formidable, all the more eager to prove that last season's year of the upstarts was an unrepeatable aberration. The leading Spanish and Italian battalions, barely into their domestic campaigns, might take a little while to find their range, but when they do, the rest should take cover.

The best match-up of any could be in Celtic's group, when Barcelona's clutch of new signings take on the ever-threatening Milan. Both should progress, like Bayern Munich and Juventus (strengthened by Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Fabio Cannavaro), who ought to have too much experience for a young Ajax squad in Group C. In Group B, Roma have been beset by managerial problems and the loss of key players, one of whom, Walter Samuel, will soon come up against his old club for the newly anglicised Real Madrid.

In the other section with no direct British interest, there will be some close encounters between Claudio Ranieri's Uefa Cup holders, Valencia, Internazionale with Roberto Mancini as their new coach, Anderlecht and the German Double-winners, Werder Bremen.

Arsenal's year or not, it is a 50th anniversary with a promising guest list.

Tuesday: Group E: Arsenal v PSV Eindhoven. Group F: Celtic v Barcelona. Group H: Paris St-Germain v Chelsea.

Wednesday: Group A: Liverpool v Monaco. Group D: Lyon v Manchester United.