Napoli fixture among defining ties – Wenger

Arsenal manager brings strongest squad to southern Italy in bid for last-16 berth

Jack Wilshere during an Arsenal training session ahead of their Uefa Champions League group F match against Napoli. Photograph:   Scott Heavey/Getty Images

Jack Wilshere during an Arsenal training session ahead of their Uefa Champions League group F match against Napoli. Photograph: Scott Heavey/Getty Images

Wed, Dec 11, 2013, 15:30

Arsene Wenger says Arsenal face one of the defining matches of their season against Rafael Bentiez’ Napoli and that qualification to the Champions League last 16 would give them a lift before the Premier League fixtures against Manchester City and Chelsea.

The manager has brought his strongest available squad to southern Italy and he indicated that he was loth to make too many changes to the team that drew 1-1 at home to Everton on Sunday.

Arsenal must avoid a three-goal defeat to ensure they advance but a draw would guarantee that they did so as group winners.

Arsenal would almost certainly face more fearsome last-16 opponents as runners-up but Wenger’s message was clear: play the football that has made them England’s best team and keep a key element of the season alive into the new year.

“Will the next three games define our season? Tomorrow’s game certainly [will],” he said. “It is to be in the Champions League or not. The other two games will not definitely . . . we are five points ahead and the championship is a marathon. We will be in the race, no matter what happens but they [City and Chelsea] will hopefully show our strength. Napoli is a decider, that is for sure.

“Our priorities are simple: first, qualify and, if possible, top. We can’t afford to do anything [regarding rotation].

Wenger expects his men not to be overawed by the hot reception which awaits them, having produced smash-and-grab raids at equally intimidating away venues earlier in this current Champions League campaign.

Charged atmosphere
“That is part of the big games, we know how to deal with that because we have that everywhere in Europe,” Wenger said. “When you go from Fenerbahce to Dortmund, you are used to these kind of atmospheres.” Wenger does not want his team to dwell on the frustration of not being able to hold out for victory over Everton on Sunday, which would have extended their lead at the top of the Premier League to seven points.

Arsenal now head into a run of six matches in 22 days. Wenger’s squad will have little time to recover when they travel back from Italy before tackling Manchester City at the Etihad Stadium on Saturday. Then

Arsenal have a showdown with Chelsea on December 23rd as the festive fixtures get into full swing – with the small matter of a north-London derby against Tottenham in the FA Cup third round on January 4th further away on the horizon.

Bullish Arsenal
Wenger remains fully focused on the immediate challenge in front of his side. “Tomorrow’s game certainly (is decisive) as it is to be in the Champions League or not. The two other (Premier League) games not definitely as we are five points ahead and overall the (English) championship is a marathon,” he said.

“We will be in the race, no matter what happens. We will show our strength hopefully, but [the Napoli game] is a decider, that is for sure.”

Wenger added: “The attitude of the players for me is absolutely focused, ambitious and that is what pleases me very much, because it shows the players want to do well until the end of the season.”

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