LONDON, Nov 4 – Arsene Wenger has warned Arsenal's stars that they must qualify from their Champions League group in first place.Wenger’s side can effectively book their spot in the knockout stages with a win over Dutch champions AZ Alkmaar at the Emirates Stadium on Wednesday, but the Arsenal boss won’t be satisfied with that.
The Gunners are currently top of Group H with seven points from three games – including a 1-1 draw with Alkmaar – and Wenger knows it would be a major boost to finish in pole position as the first-placed teams are guaranteed a home second leg in the last 16.
"We want to finish first in the group and that will not be done on Wednesday but we can make the first step, to win and qualify," Wenger said on Tuesday.
"That will be a big step but you know we were warned at Alkmaar that this team has quality, that, in my opinion, they focus highly on the Champions League."
After being widely written off as also-rans in pre-season, Arsenal have defied the critics so far this term.
They have gone 11 matches without defeat in all competitions and Wenger believes the Gunners, who were beaten by Manchester United at the semi-final stage last season, deserve to be ranked among Europe’s elite.
"I consider ourselves as an elite club because we are in the top seeded eight of Europe and we are as I have said with only two clubs who have achieved 12 consecutive times to play in the Champions League, so we are an elite club," he said.
"You do not only want to participate. We have been in the final, we have been in the semi-final and at some stage I think being here every year we will win it."
Arsenal looked in peak form on Saturday as they destroyed north London rivals Tottenham 3-0. Yet, while Wenger is encouraged by his young side’s impressive form, he knows the litmus test will come if they remain in contention for silverware in the second half of the season.
The pressure of playing two matches a week and needing to win every time seperates the pretenders from the truly great teams and Wenger added: "We have to show that we can focus every three days, that we can play for each other every three days all along the season, that we can prepare every game with the same kind of conscientious attitude and that we can win.
"That’s a lot of things that we have still to accomplish. It is in front of us and for example we have to show that we can go into the game with the same seriousness that we have done on Saturday against Tottenham."
A win over Alkmaar on Wednesday would not only push Arsenal towards the last 16, but also end a series of disappointments for Wenger against AZ coach Ronald Koeman.
Wenger has squared up against former Holland star Koeman five times in Europe and has yet to finish on the winning side.
Koeman masterminded a knockout stage win over Arsenal during his time at PSV Eindhoven, then moved to Ajax, who drew twice with the Gunners, before holding Wenger’s team to a draw with AZ two weeks ago.
Publicly at least Wenger insists he isn’t motivated by personal duels.
"Personally I don’t feel that I played against Ronald Koeman. I think I play against Alkmaar with my team and that is the most important," Wenger said.
"I believe Ronald Koeman didn’t score in the last minute when we played against Alkmaar.
"Credit to him – he organises his team and they fight well and he has always been a manager of good teams. But I have never in my life been obsessed by personal rivalries."