Belfast Telegraph

Gunners crave smooth route to group

Arsenal will be hoping gruelling trips to Turkey or Ukraine do not lie in wait when the draw for the Champions League play-offs is made in Nyon on Friday.

The Gunners look set to be without any major signings registered in time for Monday's deadline to feature in the two legs - the first of which will come just a few days after the start of the new Barclays Premier League campaign.

They continue to track Liverpool's wantaway striker Luis Suarez, who has again spoken of his desire to leave Anfield in an interview with the Spanish media.

Arsenal - who ended last season with a superb 10-match unbeaten run to secure fourth place ahead of Tottenham - will be among the seeded clubs in the non-champions section, and so cannot face the likes of AC Milan, Schalke or Lyon.

However, the prospect of facing up to Fenerbahce or Ukrainians Metalist Kharkiv - both of whom's participation in the competition proper could yet be in doubt because of legal disputes - will be one manager Arsene Wenger wants to avoid most, especially if the second leg proves to be away in the same week as they host north London rivals Spurs.

Real Sociedad, who finished fourth in La Liga, boast former Gunner Carlos Vela in their ranks and have spent some of their pre-season in England, drawing 1-1 at Norwich in midweek ahead of a friendly meeting with Southampton.

PSV Eindhoven finished second in the last Dutch championship and would represent a more favourable opposition, as would Portuguese side Pacos de Ferreira, who have never qualified for the Champions League.

Arsenal, though, have some pedigree in reaching the group stages via an all-or-nothing tie, as they battled past Udinese two seasons ago and swept aside the challenge of Celtic ahead of the 2009-2010 campaign.

Nevertheless, Wenger will take nothing for granted and has no intention to leave anything to chance having fought so hard for the right to play among Europe's elite clubs once again.

He said: "Our immediate aim is to start well in the Premier League and to qualify for the Champions League group stage.

"That is always a huge challenge, which demands a lot of energy, but we fought hard to be in this position last year, so we want to take the next step now."

With such a key fixture arriving so early, Wenger will be hoping his three England men - Jack Wilshere, Theo Walcott and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain - all come through next week's friendly against Scotland unscathed, having been included in a 25-strong squad by Roy Hodgson.

Arsenal - who did not win any of their two games at the Emirates Cup last weekend - are likely to take a near full-strength squad to Helsinki for Saturday's friendly against Manchester City.

Full-back Nacho Monreal is not expected to be involved as, along with captain Thomas Vermaelen, he continues his recovery from injury.

Despite the ongoing Suarez saga, Wenger maintains Arsenal are determined to strengthen the squad ahead of the closing of the transfer window on September 2, with reports in Romania suggesting a free transfer deal for forward Ciprian Marica is close following his release by Schalke.

Arsenal are also expected to further free up their wage bill with the sale of Ivory Coast forward Gervinho to Roma and Morocco striker Marouane Chamakh to newly-promoted Crystal Palace.


From Belfast Telegraph