Champions League: Wenger stunned Arsenal could be on brink of exit

Frank Dalleres
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ARSENAL manager Arsene Wenger admits he can scarcely believe his side could yet crash out of the Champions League at the group stage for the first time since 1999, despite coasting to a fourth win from five games last night.

Midfielder Jack Wilshere’s first brace for the club, including the fastest goal scored in this season’s competition after just 29 seconds, swatted away limp Marseille and kept the Gunners top of Group F on 12 points.

But defeat by three goals at Napoli in a fortnight will see Arsenal eliminated if, as seems likely, Borussia Dortmund beat Marseille in Germany, while Wenger’s men need a point in Italy to reach the last 16 as group winners.

“It’s the first time I have seen that in over 150 Champions League games,” he said. “It’s unbelievable but it’s reality and we have to finish the job.

“We have to go there, play in a positive way and try to win the game, because everything else would be a dangerous gamble.”

Although qualification for the knockout rounds for a 14th successive season remains the most likely scenario, Wenger intends to field his best team at Napoli, but conceded it would mean the Premier League leaders reluctantly resting players for the preceding fixtures against Cardiff, Hull and Everton.

“I have to rotate a little bit until then because we have a big programme,” he said. “I have to use my squad well without dropping points in the league.”

Wilshere’s pair of strikes took his total to four in eight games and Wenger said he had been spurred on by 11-goal fellow midfielder Aaron Ramsey.

“I like his first goal because before he rushed a little bit,” he added. “He’s starting to think: ‘What Ramsey can do, I can do as well’. It puts in his mind that he has to score goals as well.”

Long since condemned to elimination, Marseille made six changes for the trip to Emirates Stadium, and defeatism turned to almost certain defeat with the game’s first attack.

Wilshere scampered free down the right channel, advanced into the box and turned defender Lucas Mendes before bending a lofted shot into the far top corner.

A rout looked on the cards as Arsenal swiftly tore through the French rearguard at will. First Steve Mandanda’s legs denied Ramsey at point-blank range, then Mesut Ozil miscontrolled a high ball with just the goalkeeper to beat.

Record signing Ozil, sluggish lately, prompted more groans just before half-time. Ramsey’s flick lured Nicolas N’Koulou into conceding a penalty but Mandanda leapt off his line to parry away a tame penalty from the German. “It’s good news for England,” Wenger quipped.

Mandanda tipped Ozil’s poked effort wide shortly after the break but could not prevent the former Real Madrid playmaker squaring for Wilshere to wrap up three points with an easy second on 66 minutes.

Marseille substitute Florian Thauvin forced full-back Nacho Monreal to clear off the line and brought a sharp low stop from Wojciech Szczesny.