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Depressed Wenger admits Gunners lag behind top clubs

Under normal circumstances, any question about the potential of his young Arsenal team represents nothing more than a gentle full toss for Arsene Wenger.

He has always forcefully rejected any doubts about their collective quality and boldly predicted that they can achieve domination not just domestically but also in Europe.

Such bravado has sometimes invited ridicule and, after the most traumatic period of his 15 years at Arsenal, a significant shift in expectation and emphasis was evident yesterday.

Relentless optimism has been replaced by cold-headed realism. Indeed, as Wenger prepares for his 14th consecutive tilt at the Champions League, there was even the candid admission that Arsenal are now playing catch-up with Europe's elite.

"I see two teams above the rest: Real Madrid and Barcelona," said Wenger.

"The rest have to catch up during the season. Barcelona and Real Madrid have much more financial power than they did 14 years ago because they have individual television rights. At the moment, with teams like Chelsea and Manchester City, they just take who they want."

Even the question of whether Arsenal, just hypothetically, could win this season's Champions League was greeted with rare caution and uncertainty.

"We are full of hope but I can understand why people raise that question," said Wenger. "We have not had a particularly strong start in the championship. I wouldn't rule it out but it's too early to have that kind of ambition. Saying that would raise a lot of scepticism from the team and I don't think anyone would believe.

"What is at stake during the group stages for us is to show that we can go through. Barcelona have shown they can win. At the moment, it's too early to compare us to them."

Wenger, who also said that it would be premature to compare Manchester City to Barcelona, even admitted that he would not know until November whether his team would be competing for trophies.

"I believe that we can be competitive, but the next two months will tell," he said. "We have to form a team in the next two months. For us, it is a new start because we are a new squad. This is a good opportunity for us to get positive vibes.."

Having had his transfer window dealings likened to a trolley dash, there was also the blunt acceptance that the signings of Per Mertesacker, Mikel Arteta, Yossi Benayoun, Andre Santos and Gervinho carry a risk.

"We have had five players coming in, nobody knows how good they will be," he said.

There were certainly some uncharacteristic Wenger signings, with Benayoun and Arteta both aged over 29 and Mertesacker, at 6ft 6in, the tallest outfield player that he has recruited for Arsenal.

"I look at the quality of the player and not at the size but because we play a very technical game, I usually choose smaller players," he said.

With Borussia Dortmund, Marseille and Olympiakos in their Champions League group, Arsenal do face a genuine challenge as they seek to extend their qualification for the knockout phase to 12 consecutive years.

Wenger also begins his two-match touchline ban in Dortmund tonight as punishment for supposedly breaking the terms of a previous suspension. It leaves assistant manager Pat Rice taking responsibility both for the half-time team talk and substitutions.