Barcelona the main threat as Wenger plots return to Rome

ARSENE Wenger has Barcelona down as slight favourites to win the Champions League ahead of tomorrow s draw in Switzerland. Arsenal scraped into the last eight with that tense 7-6 penalty shoot-out win in Rome just over a week ago and believe they can retu

ARSENE Wenger has Barcelona down as slight favourites to win the Champions League ahead of tomorrow's draw in Switzerland.

Arsenal scraped into the last eight with that tense 7-6 penalty shoot-out win in Rome just over a week ago and believe they can return to the Eternal City on May 27 for the final.

But they face four potentially tough games before a second final appearance in four seasons.

The 2006 winners - who now boast Arsenal goalscoring legend Thierry Henry in their ranks - beat Ligue 1 outfit Lyon 6-3 on aggregate in the last 16 and the Gunners boss admitted he was impressed.

"Perhaps Barcelona are the favourites because they had the most convincing win and have scored more goals than anyone else in Europe," said Wenger.

"They are considered by many people, understandably, to be the favourites. But it is a cup game, we saw that in our tie against Roma.

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"We did not take advantage of the chances we created in the first leg and nearly paid for it in the second tie. You have to be efficient from now on."

Former Arsenal star Paul Merson, who won a Cup Winners' Cup medal with Arsenal in 1994, the club's last European trophy success, already has his eye on opponents he would prefer Arsenal to face.

"We'll really be wanting Villarreal or Porto, and I also don't think Bayern Munich won't cause us too many problems, despite thumping Sporting Lisbon in the last round," said Merson - and the trophy will be won by one of the four English sides.

"Also, this might surprise some people, but defensively Barcelona are not strong, which is why I can't see them going all the way - they'll always concede goals against sides who attack them.

"Arsenal are coming good and have a very good chance of winning this competition, but then I have always said we have a great chance because we're completely suited to the Champions League - it's definitely a scrap between the English clubs."

Charity, though, does not begin at home for the Gunners. Arsenal's gripping penalty victory in Rome made them the fourth and final English team in the hat for the Champions League quarter final, giving them a 43 per cent chance of drawing one of the three other remaining Premier League sides who remain in the competition.

But, on previous form, they'll hope to avoid domestic opponents.

They have been knocked out twice at the same stage by English opposition - in 2004 by Chelsea, losing 2-1 at home after a 1-1 first-leg draw at Stamford Bridge, and then again last season when a 1-1 home draw with Liverpool was followed by a crushing, and desperately unlucky, 2-4 loss at Anfield.

While English teams continue to dominate the competition, it is notable that for the first time in seven seasons, there will be no Italian representation in the quarter final draw after Roma's elimination.

Injured skipper Cesc Fabregas, who watched the Roma shootout on fellow crock Tomas Rosicky's sofa, said: "We are in the quarter finals among the best eight teams in Europe - and we are there on merit.

"We deserve to be there - it is serious now. In the first knockout stage there are still one or two teams that are not that powerful. But now only the best eight teams are there."

After that fortunate win in Rome, outplayed for much of the evening and frequently conceding possession, the Gunners need their talismanic captain back.

He has reportedly earmarked the first leg as a possible return date after injuring a knee back in December against Liverpool and was due to start training before Saturday's trip to Newcastle.

Fabregas hinted he has a slight hunch he knows who Arsenal could be pitted against.

"The English league is above any other league at the moment so I think I would rather avoid another English side in the next round.

"We have already played against six of the seven teams left in the Champions League during my time at the club," he added.

"Manchester United are the only team we haven't faced before in Europe. We also know we can beat anyone."

When asked if he would like to avoid Premier League opposition, his manager Wenger added: "I wouldn't like to make that statement. It means we would be in a disadvantaged position if we did draw an English team."

"No matter who we get we want to knock them out."

The manager knows he must improve on Arsenal's lame European record - just two trophies in nearly half a century is unacceptable for a club of Arsenal's stature.

Wenger has been a loser in two European finals with the club - the 2000 Uefa Cup and 2006 Champions League - but with key players returning from injury and the club on an upward curve after a traumatic winter, he is full of optimism for success this May.

"We have a challenge in every single game from now until the end of the season and we cannot drop off one or two per cent in our performances," he added.

"I feel in the dressing room the team are really up for it."

The quarter-final first legs will be played on April 7 and 8 with the return games on April 14 and 15.