Sunday 22 April 2018

Champions League lost bit of lustre, says Wenger

Arsenal boss Arsene Wenger. Photo: Carl Recine
Arsenal boss Arsene Wenger. Photo: Carl Recine

Jonathan Liew

Arsene Wenger has said that the Champions League has become less interesting in recent years, as he prepares to take his Arsenal side to Belarus to face BATE Borisov in the Europa League.

Wenger's 19-year run of Champions League football came to an end after he could guide them only to fifth place in last season's Premier League, but he said that the competition no longer held the appeal it once did.

"I think that in the group stage, there are not many interesting games," he said. "You choose [to watch] only one or two games. It's a routine now, the Champions League, in the group stage. Look at the audiences. It has lost some attraction power."

Wenger is justified in pointing out the decline in audience figures, certainly in England. Champions League television audiences have been in decline for years now, with even games featuring English clubs attracting audiences of around 200,000 on BT Sport. This year's final attracted more television viewers in the United States than it did in England.

In addition, the increasing concentration of wealth at the top of the game has led to the same teams playing each other more often; more than half of the fixtures in this year's group stage have occurred before in Uefa competition. Last month, Wenger claimed that the Premier League had "taken over from the Champions League, interest-wise".

Nonetheless, Wenger admitted that he missed the buzz of Champions League week, a loss thrown into ever sharper relief by their 1,200-mile trip to Belarus this Thursday. "Honestly, yes," Wenger replied when asked whether he missed the competition. "But I must say, I have had nearly 200 games in the Champions League, so I can feel privileged."

Before their Eastern European engagement, Arsenal face West Brom at the Emirates Stadium tomorrow. And Wenger reserved special praise for Aaron Ramsey, a player he believes is finally maturing into the complete central midfielder. Ramsey has always had the technical ability, but in recent months, Wenger believes, he has added the experience and anticipation required to win loose balls in midfield, a skill at its most evident during last Sunday's 0-0 draw at Chelsea.

"It's all there," Wenger said. "He has more maturity, he has improved technically, he is more conscious of the importance of technical qualities. His game is clean: he has huge physical power, a huge engine. You know your job at [the age of] 25. It is as simple as that. You know where to be at the right moment to anticipate. You have to win a lot of balls when the ball is in a neutral zone. That means it's not your ball, it's not my ball. But if I understand quicker than you, I have many chances to win the ball when it's in between you."

Ramsey struggled with injuries for much of last season, and with Santi Cazorla also a long-term absentee, Wenger has set Ramsey a target of playing 30 games this season. "Last year, in October, we lost Ramsey and Cazorla together," Wenger said. "For us it was a handicap. Hopefully this season he can have many more games."

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