Wenger and Vermaelen talk Arsenal hopes
Arsene Wenger has challenged his young Arsenal team to come out all guns blazing when the new Premier League season kicks off at Liverpool, and lay down an early marker in their quest for a first championship since 2004.
The Gunners are currently at a training camp in Austria and played the second game of their pre-season schedule against Sturm Graz on Wednesday night, winning 3-0. Wenger has been pleased with the way his side is shaping up, as the likes of Theo Walcott, Samir Nasri and England youngster Jack Wilshere have all enjoyed some much-needed action, with another fixture coming up against Austrian Regional League East outfit Neusiedl on Tuesday.
However, both FIFA World Cup™ finalists - Cesc Fabregas, whose future is yet unclear amid interest from Barcelona, and Robin van Persie - are not scheduled to rejoin the squad until the Emirates Cup, when Arsenal will face AC Milan and Celtic.
Arsenal will complete their pre-season schedule at Legia Warsaw on 7 August, before the small matter of a trip to Anfield the following Sunday against Roy Hodgson's new-look team in front of the live television cameras. With this season's title race expected to be one of the most hotly contested in years, Wenger knows full well the importance of a flying start as the Gunners host newly-promoted Blackpool next and then travel to Blackburn Rovers.
"The aim is to continue to progress as we have been doing," Wenger told the official Arsenal magazine. "We were very close last year - closer than the previous season - so we are heading in the right way.
"We hope we can continue that this season. It is important to start well, start strongly, and get into a good position early on and to try to maintain the level."
Centre-back Thomas Vermaelen is in no doubt Arsenal can silence the critics and mount a sustained title challenge. "We have a good young group who are very aggressive and want to improve," said the Belgium international, set to partner new signing Laurent Koscielny.
"I think people will always say we can't compete - it is not the first time, but we have to do what we always do which is work hard and play our own game, then we can compete. I hope we can compete for the title this year and I am convinced we will."
Following the departure of Eduardo to Shakhtar Donetsk, Wenger maintains he is not on the market for any offensive players, having already landed long-time target Marouane Chamakh before the FIFA World Cup. However, the Arsenal manager remains keen to bring it at least one more defender, which could yet be former captain Sol Campbell, who appears ready to take up the offer of a new deal. Everton's Phil Jagielka and Udinese centre-half Cristian Zapata are, though, both said to be on the Gunners' wanted list.
It remains to be seen whether Arsenal will move for a goalkeeper, but they are still being linked with Fulham's £4m-rated Australian international Mark Schwarzer. Wenger admits he has not yet decided on his first choice between the sticks, with Manuel Almunia having not played in pre-season because of illness.
Youngster Vito Mannone, who had a spell in the first team last season after injuries to both Almunia and Lukasz Fabianski, feels ready for the challenges ahead. "In my mind, I need to feel the boss does not have a number one, so I need to do my best every training session and in every chance I have in a game," the 22-year-old Italian told the club's official website. "That helps you a lot to grow and develop yourself."
Elsewhere, neither striker Nicklas Bendtner nor midfielder Denilson have travelled to Austria because of groin injuries. Wenger, though, stressed the problems "do not look big" and the duo should be in contention for the Emirates Cup.