LONDON • Arsene Wenger has warned his Arsenal players to expect a battle against relegation-threatened Sunderland today as he targets a strong finish to a troubled Premier League campaign.
The Gunners saw off West Bromwich Albion on Thursday, although the 2-0 victory was achieved in front of thousands of empty seats as fans stayed away to show their frustration at Wenger's failure to deliver a title challenge since 2004.
With third-placed Arsenal 10 points behind leaders Leicester City and five adrift of second-placed Tottenham, Wenger is mostly focused on qualifying for the Champions League via a third-placed finish.
A fourth-placed finish "is not Champions League", the Frenchman said on Friday as he outlined the importance he has attached to securing automatic qualification to next season's competition. Fourth place would necessitate having to get through a two-leg play-off to reach the group phase.
It will not deliver even that if Manchester City win the Champions League and Liverpool the Europa League - and both finish outside the Premier League's top four. Then fourth would be good enough only for the Europa League.
"Top four is not Champions League," Wenger said. "Top three, yes. That's why it is important.
"We are not guaranteed top four and we have to fight for that. Man United is (four points) behind us and they will fight for it as well."
Wenger, who has never finished outside the top four in England's top flight, knows Sunderland are a tough proposition.
"It will be a battle," he said. "Sunderland have found a stability and (manager) Sam Allardyce has big experience."
In contrast to Wenger's difficulties with supporters, Allardyce has the full backing of the fans despite Sunderland's perilous position.
The two men have often clashed in the past, but their relationship has improved recently and Allardyce is saddened by the supporters' treatment of Wenger.
"Arsene is a brilliant manager," said Allardyce. "I can understand the frustration but it's a bit unfair for a man who's arguably got the best record as a manager that Arsenal have ever had."
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