By Richard Clarke
Arsenal make their 14th successive appearance in the Champions League Group Stages on Tuesday evening and, according to their manager, the competition is getting harder and harder to win.
For the past two seasons, the Frenchman has seen his route blocked by Barcelona in the knockout stages. The Spanish champions also scored twice in the last 13 minutes of the 2006 Final to jolt awake a ten-man Arsenal side just as they began dreaming of an improbable victory.
For Wenger, it is still Barca, and their greatest rivals, who pose the biggest threat to an English winner this year. And, as ever, footballing potential is closely linked to monetary muscle.
“I believe [in the last 14 seasons] the competition with the top teams inside England has become bigger,” said Wenger just before he boarded a plane to Germany to take on Borussia Dortmund.
“It is as difficult to win the Premier League as it is to win the Champions League because a team that wins a title is in the Champions League Final almost every year.
“And, if you look outside this country, then Barca and Real Madrid have much more financial power than they had 14 years ago because they have individualised their TV rights. So at the moment they, along with teams like Man City and Chelsea, can take who they want.”
Barcelona dominated the competition last season – and indeed Premier League champions Manchester United in a one-sided Final at Wembley. In fact the only defeat suffered by Pep Guardiola’s side in Europe last year came at Emirates Stadium and, although overrun at the Nou Camp at times, Arsenal had a chance to eliminate the hosts in the dying minutes of the second leg.
“I felt that we had a good chance to knock them out last season and they know that too,” said Wenger.
“I saw Guardiola two weeks ago when we had our managers’ meeting and they knew they were lucky on the day. We had Van Persie sent off and Fabregas wasn't 100 per cent.
“This season, I see two teams that are above the rest - Real Madrid and Barcelona - and the others have to catch up during the campaign.
“For us, it’s a new start because we are a new squad. What is at stake during the Group Stages is for us to show that we can go through. [Barcelona] have shown they can win it so, at the moment, it's too early to compare us to them.”
But Wenger was then asked if his best 11 could stand up to Guardiola’s and others at the top of the European game.
“I feel so,” he replied. “Let's get Wilshere back because he has played a big part in the quality of our game. His qualities are very difficult to find.
“Let's get Diaby back and everyone available and hope we can get some positive results together.
“I believe that we can be competitive. But the next two months will tell.”
Dortmund: Barrios (thigh), Bakalorz (Achilles), Owomoyela (hip), Kock (knee).
Arsenal: Wilshere (ankle), Diaby (ankle), Rosicky (knee), Squillaci (calf), Vermaelen (ankle), Ramsey (knee).
Referee: Gianluca Rocchi (Italy)Copyright 2013 The Arsenal Football Club plc. Permission to use quotations from this article is granted subject to appropriate credit being given to www.arsenal.com as the source 13 Sep 2011