LONDON, April 16, 2009 (AFP) – Arsene Wenger insists Arsenal are still "super outsiders" to win the Champions League even though his side brushed aside Villarreal 3-0 to book a semi-final showdown with Manchester United.
The Gunners were at their majestic best in Wednesday’s quarter-final second leg at the Emirates Stadium as goals from Theo Walcott, Emmanuel Adebayor and Robin van Persie dispatched Manuel Pellegrini’s Spanish club in resounding fashion.
After spluttering through the first half of the season, Arsenal appear to be hitting peak form at just the right time.
They are unbeaten in 18 Premier League matches and now have a European semi-final to look forward to as well as Saturday’s FA Cup semi-final against Chelsea.
With Walcott, Adebayor and, perhaps most importantly, Cesc Fabregas all back from injury and showing few signs of rust, Arsenal look capable of ending their four-year wait for silverware.
Wenger’s side also have the advantage of playing the second leg against United at the Emirates, where they have already beaten the European champions 2-1 this season.
But the Gunners boss admits knocking out United will be the sternest challenge his young side have faced.
"I wouldn’t like to speculate about any weakness of Man United. We expect them to be strong when they play us and that should encourage us to be at our best," Wenger said. "That is how we will prepare the game. We are still super outsiders.
"It is difficult to play an English team in Europe because they will have quality, but I believe if you want to go far in the Champions League you have to play an English team at some stage.
"It is a test but I think it is a challenge you relish and we are excited about that.
"The teams always produce very exciting games so it is a promising semi-final. We are up for the challenge."
Wenger has had a long and sometimes bitter rivalry with United manager Sir Alex Ferguson. The Gunners boss acknowledges that the prize of a Champions League final could reopen old wounds, but he is more concerned to keep his players in peak physical condition going into the first leg at Old Trafford on April 29.
"The history is always a little part to play," he said. "But we are in a cup competition with 180 minutes to play. What is more important is the form of the day.
"We are both in the semi-final of the FA Cup and have a game in hand to play. How we are physically will have a big impact."
Wenger is keen to keep the focus on this weekend’s Wembley date with Chelsea before planning for the Old Trafford clash.
But he could be forgiven a moment to reflect on the way his team showed a tenacity and belief few thought they possesssed to answer the critics who wrote them off.
"I was never worried about the quality of the players, more about the confidence and belief of a very young side," he said. "It is always more difficult when they don’t win. They are a bit more fragile than guys who have a big history and have gone through difficult periods.
"I was more worried about the mental side of what happened at the start of the season but they coped very well. This group is mentally strong."
Walcott gave Arsenal the perfect start on Wednesday when he punished a mistake from Diego Godin to loft a sublime chip over Diego Lopez.
Villarreal, badly missing injured Spain midfielder Marcos Senna, never recovered.
Adebayor swept home the second on the hour after good work from van Persie, who buried a penalty nine minutes later after Gordin’s foul on Walcott.
Villarreal’s Sebastian Eguren was sent off for protesting the penalty decision but the Spaniards were already buried, as Pelligrini conceded.
He said: "We wanted to get through to the semi-finals but they were better than us even before the sending off, so we have no complaints. The second goal made it very difficult to come back.
"It is hard to predict a winner of their semi-final, but Manchester United will be very difficult for them."