Sparta hold key to next step, says Wenger

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The Independent Online

Having forgone the fiscal attraction of playing their home games at Wembley in an attempt to improve their home results in the Champions' League, Arsenal will run out at the Letna stadium here tonight well aware that the financial sacrifice will be in vain if they cannot maintain their good away form. That coda is especially applicable this evening as first place in Group B, on Arsÿne Wenger's own admission, looks bound for the Italian champions, Lazio, leaving Arsenal and Sparta Prague to dispute the other qualifying place. Shakhtar Donetsk, the surprise Ukrainian qualifiers, are expected to finish bottom of the group.

Having forgone the fiscal attraction of playing their home games at Wembley in an attempt to improve their home results in the Champions' League, Arsenal will run out at the Letna stadium here tonight well aware that the financial sacrifice will be in vain if they cannot maintain their good away form. That coda is especially applicable this evening as first place in Group B, on Arsÿne Wenger's own admission, looks bound for the Italian champions, Lazio, leaving Arsenal and Sparta Prague to dispute the other qualifying place. Shakhtar Donetsk, the surprise Ukrainian qualifiers, are expected to finish bottom of the group.

Since Arsenal's home form, even with the advantage of playing at Highbury, cannot be guaranteed - they have lost two of their last three European Cup ties there - this opening match could prove decisive.

"It is a psychologically important game," said Wenger on arrival in the Czech capital. But he cautioned: "Whatever happens the home games will be important. We didn't lose a game away last year but we couldn't capitalise on it at home."

Moreover, Arsenal's pre-Wenger tilts at Europe's most prestigious club competition, in 1971-72 and 1991-92, both ended with home defeats, to Ajax and Benfica.

Arsenal travelled without three leading players, the injured Tony Adams, the non-flying Dutchman, Dennis Bergkamp, and Lauren, who has gone to the Olympic Games with Cameroon. Nevertheless, Wenger is confident. "I think we are stronger than last season," he said. "We have more experience and a lot of quality.

"I have been happy with the spirit and the way we have played this season but not the results. We should be top of the league, no problem. We have missed too many chances but that is not as worrying as if we had not been creating them."

Ashley Cole, the 19-year-old left-back who scored his first senior goal at Bradford at the weekend, is likely to continue to deputise for Silvinho, who has a bruised thigh. The Stepney-born defender has the potential to become the first player to emerge from the youth ranks since Wenger took over at Highbury four years ago this month.

"He has all the attributes to be a successful, modern left-back," the Arsenal coach said. "It is very satisfying to see a player like that come through. He has been with us since he was 12, but there will not be many like him, not at the big clubs. The pressure to win means you have to play experience. But you need to take some chances. I could have played Nelson Vivas [an Argentinian international] on Saturday."

Patrick Vieira returns from domestic suspension in midfield and Ray Parlour is expected to play despite a knee wound which required five stitches.

In Bergkamp's absence Nwankwo Kanu is likely to be entrusted with the responsibility of partnering Thierry Henry but not, said Wenger, that of taking spot-kicks. The Nigerian cost Arsenal victory and, ultimately, progress to the second stage, when he missed a late penalty in Florence in the opening group game last year. Wenger underlined the point when he said yesterday: "Henry will take the penalties. If he is off the pitch it will be Sylvain Wiltord, Robert Pires or Patrick Vieira - but not Kanu."

Sparta, who have won six of the seven Czech championships since the split with Slovakia, had six players in the impressive but unlucky Czech Euro 2000 squad but the sale of three of them to clubs in the Bundesliga, including the leading scorer, Vratislav Lokvenc, has forced rebuilding.

They, too, have lost players to the Olympics but retain the experienced Martin Hasek, Pavel and Jiri Novotny, and the promising Tomas Rosicky. Sparta also lead the domestic league with five straight victories and Arsenal may be happy with a draw.

Arsenal (probable, 4-4-1-1): Seaman; Dixon, Keown, Luzhny, Cole; Parlour, Vieira, Grimandi, Pires; Kanu; Henry.

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