Head start is high priority for Wenger

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The Independent Online
LIKE THEIR team-mate and totem Dennis Bergkamp, who arrived in France yesterday via Le Shuttle, Arsenal's players must employ tunnel vision for tonight's opening Champions' League joust against Lens.

Arsene Wenger, the manager, and winger Marc Overmars, the two members of the party with experience of the competition, have been emphasising how important it is to begin with a victory, rather than clinging on in time-honoured fashion for either the draw or narrow defeat which are still acceptable in away ties in the other two-leg European tournaments.

In the old days, the old ways of "boring, boring Arsenal" often seemed ideally suited to quelling a noisy foreign crowd, and a goalless draw was a job well done that merited champagne on the flight home. With three points for a win and only two runners-up in the six Champions' League groups qualifying for the quarter-finals, such thinking is now obsolete, above all in these opening games.

Overmars' experience with Ajax was that points lost early on are all the more difficult to make up later. Wenger says: "It's very important psychologically to win the first game. If you start well, it puts you in a good position. Barcelona didn't last year and look what happened to them. We cannot afford to believe that a draw will be a good result for us."

One other reason why that is the case - though Wenger is too much of a gentleman to say so about the champions of his native country - is that Lens look very much like the weakest of the six seeded teams with whom Arsenal might have been grouped. Were they preparing to play away tonight to Barcelona, Bayern or PSV Eindhoven, let alone Juventus, Real Madrid or Ajax, the positive strategy might need to be refined a little.

Wenger did admit that Dynamo Kiev, Arsenal's next opponents, were the most dangerous, which was as far as he would go towards risking stirring up any further passion among supporters he regards as the most intimidating in France. "Lens will be very hard," he said. "They can be very dangerous."

The pace in attack and down the flanks will concern him most, though the French champions' loss during the summer of key players such as the sweeper Jean-Guy Wallemme to Coventry and playmaker Stephane Ziani to Deportivo La Coruna, plus Cameroonian Marc-Vivien Foe's broken leg, has been reflected in some moderate league results.

Arsenal have also found their domestic crown weighing heavily. A narrow victory over Nottingham Forest followed by four draws and one goal underlines that winning the English title is easier than defending it. That one goal, beautifully struck by Stephen Hughes to deny Leicester victory on Saturday, came right at the end of six scoreless hours but seems unlikely to earn him a place tonight.

He will only play if Emmanuel Petit fails to recover from a shin injury sustained in training at the Stade Felix-Bollaert last night. Ray Parlour played a full part in training and should be fit. Tony Adams and Nicolas Anelka, both rested at Leicester, seem certain to return at the expense of Steve Bould and Christopher Wreh.

David Seaman will continue in goal, Wenger emphasising yesterday that he is not among those who have lost any faith in the England goalkeeper and that there is no question of selling him to Roma or anyone else. Like most of his team-mates, Seaman has something to make up for following the club's disappointing efforts in Europe in the past two years.

Since George Graham's two Cup-Winners' Cup finals there have been first- round Uefa Cup defeats by Borussia Monchengladbach and Panathinaikos, and not a single victory since the home semi-final against Sampdoria seven games ago. Furthermore, for a club who appear to consider themselves an automatic choice for any European league, their record in the senior competition is distinctly unimpressive. It comprises one quarter-final defeat and one second-round loss in two previous appearances - the same number as Wolves, Hearts and Athlone Town, none of whom are known to be consorting with media partners.

Arsenal (probable): Seaman; Dixon, Keown, Adams, Winterburn; Parlour, Vieira, Petit, Overmars; Bergkamp, Anelka.

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