Arsenal FC manager Arsène Wenger is predicting an open game as two of Europe's form teams jostle for early Group H supremacy when Sevilla FC come to north London.
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Arsenal FC manager Arsène Wenger is predicting an open game when two of Europe's form teams jostle for early Group H supremacy in north London. Top of the Premier League after five matches and buoyed by Saturday's 3-1 victory at Tottenham Hotspur FC, the Gunners embark on a tenth consecutive UEFA Champions League campaign against Sevilla FC with their tails up.
Wenger, however, expects to be severely tested by opponents returning to Europe's élite club competition after a 50-year absence having won the UEFA Cup in each of the last two seasons. "It's a psychological advantage to be top of the Premier League," said the 57-year-old, set to become Arsenal's longest-serving manager after signing on until 2011. "We're doing well and we're confident, but Sevilla are also doing well. Both teams try to go forward when they win the ball so it should be a good game. Sevilla are technically good, well balanced and they're not scared to play away from home."
Wenger dismissed the notion Sevilla's lack of experience could hold them back, describing Juande Ramos's side as "one of several genuine contenders to win the competition". He added: "Sevilla have joined Real Madrid [CF], [FC] Barcelona and Valencia [CF as the leading clubs] in Spain. When you grow, it's important to take things step by step and succeeding in the UEFA Cup is good preparation for the Champions League."
Arsenal boast far greater know-how in this tournament but the 2006 finalists may feel some apprehension as they begin a European challenge without Thierry Henry for the first time since 1998/99. Yet Wenger, who will be missing the injured Jens Lehmann, William Gallas and Emmanuel Eboué, remains confident, saying: "When a world-class player like Thierry goes, other players take more responsibility and that speeds up the blossoming of some individuals and pushes them to take more initiative. The team's dynamic is very good."
Sevilla have been on a positive spiral for the last two years and prepared for their group stage debut in style, brushing RC Recreativo de Huelva aside 4-1 on Sunday. Ramos, who has collected five trophies since becoming coach in 2005, is relishing the opportunity to test himself at the highest level, saying: "After two great years in the UEFA Cup, we're ready to make the step up. The competitions are very different and Arsenal represent a tough start but if we approach the games in the same way, we can do well."
Ramos is deprived of Javi Navarro and Adriano but will not adopt a defensive strategy, adding: "Arsenal and Sevilla usually score a lot and I expect an attractive game. A draw would not be bad given Arsenal are the top-seeded team, but a victory would be fantastic." Should Sevilla win, the players will dedicate the result to their former team-mate Antonio Puerta who died last month. "The best way to remember Puerta is by winning games," the coach said. "We'll work hard to get as many victories as possible in this competition because Puerta would dearly have loved to play in it."