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Arsenal in shape for European challenge

Published: Saturday 21 December 2002, 17.41CET's mid-term report finds English champions Arsenal FC aiming UEFA Champions League glory. features

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Published: Saturday 21 December 2002, 17.41CET

Arsenal in shape for European challenge's mid-term report finds English champions Arsenal FC aiming UEFA Champions League glory.

With the UEFA Champions League on its winter break, will publish mid-term reports on the 16 remaining sides in the competition every day until 31 December. Today we look at English champions Arsenal FC, who have never lifted European football's premier prize and are keen to make amends this season.

Story so far
Arsenal narrowly missed out on the knockout stages of the UEFA Champions League last season but should make up for that this time around. Already in the second group stage, they have achieved a 3-1 victory at AS Roma and a 0-0 home draw against Valencia CF. With return fixtures against those clubs and two matches against AFC Ajax to come, Arsenal are well placed for the last eight. The Gunners cruised through the first group stage, earning qualification on Matchday Five despite a 2-1 defeat at BV Borussia Dortmund. The hard work had been done with a 2-0 home win against Dortmund, followed by an eye-catching 4-0 win at PSV Eindhoven. A solitary Gilberto goal was enough to earn another away success against AJ Auxerre although there was a slight worry after losing the return 2-1. The Dortmund defeat followed but it mattered little, and top spot in Group A was sealed by a 0-0 home draw, with ten-men, against PSV. At home, Arsène Wenger’s men are on course to repeat their title triumph, despite a 2-0 defeat in December by old rivals Manchester United FC.

Arsenal’s chances for the latter stages of the competition have been boosted by the return to fitness of Robert Pires. The Frenchman returned to action in October after more than six months out with a serious knee injury. By February, he should be able to provide Arsenal with that something extra that could take them all the way. His creative flair, along with Fredrik Ljungberg on the right, contrasts with the industrious, yet incisive, nature of Gilberto and Patrick Vieira through the centre. It is the midfield that holds the key, forming a solid wall in front of solid centre-backs Pascal Cygan and Sol Campbell and relentless service for Thierry Henry, Sylvain Wiltord and Dennis Bergkamp.

Concern has been raised in some quarters about the form of veteran goalkeeper David Seaman, who missed the end of 2002 through injury. However, facts suggest he still deserves his position as No1 at Highbury, with four clean sheets in his six games so far in this season’s Champions League. One area that Arsenal could improve on is in converting chances. They create a wealth of spectacular opportunities through swift passing moves and individual brilliance but lack a predatory striker to poach from close range. Young forward Francis Jeffers does possess such ability but has yet to find his feet at Highbury.

Key man - Thierry Henry
Thierry Henry is in the form of his life and his value to the team cannot be underestimated. Take the away match against AS Roma. After conceding an early goal, Henry helped Arsenal battle back for a 3-1 win with a stunning hat-trick. He has honed his free-kick ability - a weapon which could be useful in the latter stages. He scored seven goals in the competition last year, and has six already this term.

Best moment so far
Gilberto’s goal after just 20.07 seconds, a Champions League record, on Matchday Two at PSV Eindhoven was highly significant. Not only did it encapsulate Arsenal’s ability to attack at will but it also ended a run without an away win in Europe that stretched back to February 2001.

Last updated: 21/12/02 18.30CET

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