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Football: WENGER IS READY TO SNUB THE CUP; CHAMPIONS LEAGUE PREVIEW: Arsenal v Bayer Leverkusen, Wed 7.45 Europe first for Gunners boss.

Byline: PAUL SMITH

ARSENE WENGER is ready to sacrifice the FA Cup to ensure qualification for the Champions League knockout stage.

The Arsenal boss is considering fielding a weakened side against Newcastle in the quarter-final of the competition on March 9 to ensure a place in the last eight of the Champions League three days later at home to Spanish side Deportivo La Coruna.

"If we win the next two home games I believe it will be enough for us to qualify, so we find ourselves in a bit of a difficult position playing Newcastle in the FA Cup and facing Deportivo 72 hours later," said Wenger.

"I have had a few days to calm down and the position has become a bit clearer with Liverpool playing Newcastle a few days earlier on the Wednesday. But the BBC have put us in this position of playing at 5.35pm on Saturday night instead of a noon kick-off.

"I don't know whether Newcastle would have played the game earlier on the Saturday but what can I do about the BBC? I feel it's being very unfair as we are the only side left in all three competitions.

"At the moment and with so many games coming up it's difficult to know what I will do but by the time the games come around I should be able to call upon the strength of my squad and rotate the team more.

"By that time we should have key players back and that will increase my options."

The Gunners go into the return home game against Bayer Leverkusen hoping to secure the first of two wins that will virtually assure the club of qualification.

But despite bringing a dismal run of six away defeats to an end in Germany last week after securing a 1-1 draw, Wenger is approaching the game cautiously.

"You can't take anything for granted," he said. "I saw enough of Leverkusen in Germany to know they will be a threat at Highbury.

"I can assure you of something, we will need to put in a top-level performance to get the right result."

What is puzzling Wenger, though, is his team's inability to take their League form and an impressive away record on to the Champions League stage.

"It was so important for us to get something in Germany," he said. "It would have done the spirit of the team no good if the negative results we have had away from home had continued. There was a certain amount of relief on Tuesday night. Of course we were frustrated to concede a goal so late on but the players were happy to bring the bad run to an end.

"At home we have always been strong but what I've set out to do is to improve our timid approach to away games in the competition. On Tuesday we were far more positive.

"But that's not to say there isn't room for improvement. If we can turn our away from around we should be in a good position to challenge for the European Cup.

"What surprises me is in the Champions League we've been one of the worst away from home yet in the League our away record is probably the best in Europe."

With Robert Pires signing a new a four-year contract Arsenal will now step up their attempts to secure the futures of other key players like Thierry Henry (below, with Pires) and Patrick Vieira.

But Wenger, who claims the financial bubble has burst in football, has once again insisted Arsenal will not be held to ransom and will not break their wage structure.

He said: "Football relies on the TV money and that money is short. I don't think there will be any more big spending, clubs will move to balance their books. Every club has reached their limit.

"When you consider some clubs in Brazil are already renegotiating players' contracts with 50 per cent cuts, that is an indication of where the game might be going."

CAPTION(S):

WENGER: 'I feel it's very unfair as we are the only side left in three competitions.' Below: Double glory for the Gunners in 1998.
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Title Annotation:Sport
Publication:Sunday Mirror (London, England)
Date:Feb 24, 2002
Words:695
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