at the Union Buildings in Pretoria
STOKE-ON-TRENT, United Kingdom – Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger has defended the quality of the Premier League despite the poor performances of English clubs in the Champions League.
Of the four Premier League teams in Champions League last 16
action over the last two weeks, only Chelsea avoided defeat in the first leg ties after a 1-1 draw at Galatasaray on Wednesday.
Manchester City, Manchester United and Wenger's Arsenal are all in danger of being eliminated after losing 2-0 to Barcelona, Olympiakos and Bayern Munich respectively.
But despite their struggles in Europe, England's top clubs are involved in a tense and enthralling battle for the domestic title.
Second placed Arsenal are slugging it out with leaders Chelsea, third placed Manchester City and fourth placed Liverpool for the Premier League crown, and ahead of the Gunners' trip to Stoke on Saturday, Wenger claimed the standard in the English top-flight remains the toughest around.
“I honestly think the Premier League is the most difficult league in the world because it is the league where the level is really good from the first to the 20th position,” Wenger said.
“It is the only league in Europe that has that. After that, there are 10 other teams in Europe who can beat the Premier League teams.
“The teams the English clubs have played are very difficult opponents. You have first to realise that all four English teams came out of the group stage. That means that the level is there.
“After, on one game, you cannot judge a general trend. Man City played with 10 men, Arsenal played with 10 men.
“Man City played against Barcelona, Arsenal played against Bayern Munich, who are world champions. Of course you know that with 10 men it will be a difficult game.
“After that the other two teams, Man United and Chelsea, are still in positions where they can turn the results around.
“Let's wait until the end of the second game before talking about a trend of strength or weakness.”
Wenger believes Liverpool's absence from cup competitions in the final three months of the season will give them an edge in the race to the finishing line.
Brendan Rodgers' team did not qualify for the Champions League or the Europa League this season and were knocked out of the FA Cup by the Gunners earlier this month, meaning they have only 11 more fixtures to play.
“Liverpool are in the race as well and they have an advantage because it is the only competition they play in,” Wenger added.
Mesut Ozil will return to the Arsenal squad for the match at the Britannia Stadium after being rested for the 4-1 win against Sunderland, but left-backs Nacho Monreal and Kieran Gibbs are doubtful.
Meanwhile, Stoke chairman Peter Coates has added spice to the clash after claiming Ryan Shawcross was “unfairly singled out” following the controversial challenge which left Gunners midfielder Aaron Ramsey with a broken leg four years ago.
Wenger famously branded the Potters, now managed by Mark Hughes, a “rugby team” during the tenure of previous boss Tony Pulis, but Arsenal have always struggled at the Britannia Stadium, winning just once there in the Premier League era.
“Yes, we have got this thing with Arsenal,” Coates said.
“We were very disappointed with how the Shawcross incident was treated because we thought there was never any intent whatsoever on Ryan's part.
“We thought he was very badly treated over that incident in various quarters and it was wholly unfair on him.” – Sapa-AFP