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Sep 19, 2007

Young Gunners firing on all cylinders

Arsenal 3-0 Sevilla

Those who feared football's fantasists were being outsmarted by the modern day desperation for winning at all costs were given a timely assurance to the contrary at the Emirates Stadium on Matchday One of the Champions League.

The functional football displayed by sides such as AC Milan, Chelsea and FC Porto has brought success in Europe's premier competition in the last few years, so as the two teams who have claims to being the most attractive in England and Spain went head to head on a chilly North London evening, the connoisseurs of the beautiful game held their breath and hoped to witness the wind of change.

They were not to be disappointed. So long as Arsene Wenger is manager of Arsenal, and that should be for a considerable period of time, his team will only play with a magical vibe and even though their determination to impress their adoring public occasionally costs them, they will not be changing for anyone.

• Press Pack Rumour: The end for Mourinho?

The same could be said of the Juande Ramos inspired Sevilla, who must be the most highly rated Champions League debutants of all-time. Already ranked 14th by UEFA, their back to back triumphs in the second string European competition over the last couple of years provided the ideal breeding ground for them to enter the big-time as serious contenders from the off.

While winning the UEFA Cup is a very different challenge to lifting the Champions League, FC Porto proved it can be a route to success by claiming the two competitions in 2003 and then 2004, so Wenger's claims Sevilla should be regarded as 'one of the four or five teams who can win' this season's ultimate European prize could not be ignored.

Sevilla boss Ramos did his best to distance his side from such accolades and insisted their 'rookie' status meant they could not be considered among the chief contenders this time around, but the shrewd judges will have placed a few spare pennies on a side that could easily have lifted last season's Spanish title were it not for a desperately overcrowded fixture list at the end of last season.

And from the start of this game, it was clear that Sevilla would not allow first night nerves to get in the way of their ambitions as they attacked Arsenal with the sort of dynamic football that has won them so many friends in the last couple of years. This was very much going to be two sides fighting flair with flair and those of us fortunate to be here prepared for the feast.

Ramos sets up his side with a 4-4-2 formation, with captain Jose Luis Marti a willing unsung hero sitting deep in the heart of the midfield. Danish play-maker Christian Poulsen is given license to pull some strings in the heat of the battle and wide men Jesus Nava and Diego Capel provide width and pace down the flanks. The latter of that duo is very much a rich man's Stephen Hunt, with his shaggy hair and never ending energy very reminiscent of the underrated Reading and Ireland midfield.

Fredi Kanoute's presence up front is crucial to their game plan and whether he is paired with Brazilian Luis Fabiano or Alexander Kerzhakov, a goal threat is always present. Add to that the highly rated Daniel Alves and his bursts forward from a full-back berth and you have an attacking force to be reckoned with.

Even though this was game did not be provide any tangible evidence that Wenger will be proved right in his prediction that Sevilla will challenge for the Champions League crown this season, they showed enough invention and created enough chances to give their backers real optimism for the months ahead.

A deflected first half goal from Cesc Fabregas and second half strikes from Robin van Persie and substitute Eduardo were enough to seal all three points for Arsenal in this opening Group H fixture, though Sevilla provided enough evidence to suggest they will come through this opening phase and pose a threat to sides in the new year.

Looking so comfortable on the ball, they twice went close to finding a late first half leveller through Kanoute and the final score line flattered Arsenal, with Sevilla wasting several decent chances to score their first Champions League goal.

If they were going to find a route back into this game, Marti needed to make the most of the glorious opportunity he had in front of goal after a deflected cross opened up the Arsenal defence, but his scuffed effort summed up what had become a night of near misses for Sevilla. Their final ball often let them down when they got into dangerous positions, but if they do hit peak form at some point in the next few months, they are capable of upsetting the best.

It may be that Sevilla's defensive ranks are exposed a little against the best European strikers this season, yet Ramos still found some positives as his first taste of Champions League action ended in defeat. 'We saw the challenge you face in this competition compared to the UEFA Cup tonight,' said Ramos, somehow managing to get through a press conference without being asked about his links with Tottenham.

'One chance against this quality of opponent and they finish you off, but we may have had more room for mistakes last season. This is why I would not agree with Wenger when he says we have a chance to win the Champions League this season. I still believe we can qualify for the next stage, but we saw tonight that a top side with a strong defence can make it difficult for us.

'Sevilla are still a young team in the Champions League and sides like Arsenal and AC Milan have a history and economic set-up that is better than ours. We can take some lessons from this season and in my view, our bad luck played a part in this game.'

While Sevilla were left to rue their missed opportunities, Arsene Wenger could content himself with another night of triumph in what is already becoming a season of vindication for the Arsenal boss. His move to off-load Thierry Henry and put all his faith in the youngsters he has been promoting for many a year was more than a little bold during the summer, but it looks set to pay off in the grand manner.

'It is still very early in the season, but when you see your players all dancing around the pitch and showing so much sprit, it fills you with hope,' admitted the Arsenal boss. 'The final score line in this game does not reflect the real nature of this game because Sevilla are a top side and we have the fortune when we needed it. I now need to keep everyone's feet on the ground because we have had an almost perfect start to this season.'

Wenger then took the opportunity to have a little dig at Chelsea, as Emirates Stadium was packed out for this game just a day after Stamford Bridge was left half-full for the Blues first Champions League game of the campaign. 'The support at this club amazes me and maybe we will need to add some seats onto this stadium sometime,' he added. 'Maybe the football we play attracts more people than other clubs.'

The resolute and brilliantly dogged sides will no doubt have their say, but a re-match between these two teams in the Champions League Final in Moscow next May would be a triumph for style over substance.

At this formative stage of the season, we football fantasists can dare to dream.

MAN OF THE MATCH: Cesc Fabregas
This little Spaniard must be one of the finest footballers in Europe just now and he had another inspired game at the heart of the Arsenal midfield.

FOOD WATCH: The pre-match beef stew in Guinness was a bold culinary effort, but it was a major triumph. Regular Insider reading will not be surprised to hear that the ice cream fridge was raided once again.

INSIDER MOAN: The three French journalists sat around me cannot have seen a moment of the game as they had their back to the pitch all night as they talked to each other. My annoyance turned to concern as they started rubbing each other on the cheek mid-way through the second half.

SEVILLA VERDICT: One defeat against an Arsenal side high on confidence does not mean Sevilla's ambitions in this season's Champions League are over, but the manner of the defeat suggested they may not be quite ready to triumph against the best this season. They will entertain anyone who catches one of their games in the next few months all the same.

  • PRESS PACK RUMOUR:

    The rumour that manager Jose Mourinho had left Chelsea on Wednesday night brought carnage to the press room as journalists ran around trying to confirm the scoop and decide whether or not to run with it in Thursday morning's newspapers.

    The talk amongst the hacks indicated that Mourinho informed an unnamed Chelsea player of his decision to leave the London club after training, the player then texted a member of the media with the news, which prompted calls to Chelsea chief executive Peter Kenyon, who denied he had heard any news on the subject.

    Mourinho's rocky relationship with Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich is public knowledge - the current spat about playing/not playing Andrei Shevchenko is often in the headlines - and has made the rumour easier to swallow.

    • Email newsdesk@soccernet.com with your thoughts.