Santi Cazorla: 'Arsenal can challenge for Champions League and EPL'

    (CNN)A big criticism of Arsenal in recent years is that the English Premier League club crumbles in the biggest games.

    Failure to beat major rivals in crunch clashes has left Arsene Wenger's side without a domestic championship since 2004, while the Gunners have not gone past the second round of the UEFA Champions League for the past five seasons.
    But that is about to change, according to the London team's Spanish midfield maestro Santi Cazorla.
      "I don't think we are inferior to the Spanish clubs or Bayern Munich. It's true that they are very powerful teams and it is very difficult to compete with them," Cazorla told CNN ahead of the new Premier League season, which kicks off this weekend.
      "In recent years they have all won the Champions League and are favorites when they face English teams.
      "But I think we are very strong too and can be at that level next season."

      Victory! #FACup @arsenal

      A photo posted by Santi Cazorla (@santicazorla) on

      Arsenal begins its 2015-16 campaign at home to West Ham on Sunday, buoyed by a rare victory over Premier League champion Chelsea in last weekend's Community Shield curtain-raiser.
      Wenger's men lost just twice in the last 18 league games of last season, which saw them climb from sixth to third but still finish 12 points behind Chelsea, while they also successfully defended the FA Cup.
      "We need to play to the same level that we were at for the second half of the season," Cazorla said. "We need to be at that level if we want to dispose of Chelsea, Manchester United and Manchester City.
      "We need to be there to fight for the title, and regularly maintaining a high level is something that we have lacked, but the second part of the season proves that we can do it."
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      Sat in a small room overlooking the Emirates' impeccable pitch, Cazorla's smile and charisma are infectious. When he tells you Arsenal will be competing domestically and internationally next season, you can't help but believe him.
      The team's improved showing during the last campaign was thanks largely in part to one of Wenger's marquee signings.
      "Extremely energetic, contagious enthusiasm and very ambitious."
      No prizes for guessing which Arsenal player Cazorla is talking about.

      🏆🎊🎉🎊🎉 copa América 2015 ...

      A photo posted by Alexis Sanchez (@alexis_officia1) on

      He may have been halfway across the world at the Copa America, scoring the penalty that won his country its first international trophy, but the eulogizing of Chile star Alexis Sanchez back in London never stopped.
      "Alexis is a player that transmits a lot of energy," Cazorla said of the former Barcelona forward, who was Arsenal's top scorer with 16 league goals. "He transmits a lot of ambition and as well as being an incredible footballer, his enthusiasm -- and just being the person he is -- is contagious to the rest of the team.
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      "It has helped the team reach a completely different level."
      Cazorla was flattered when Wenger chose him as his player of the season, but the diminutive Spaniard was quick to pass on the compliment to the player he felt it was more befitting.
      "For me it has to be Alexis," he said. "He has given us so much and a big increase in quality.
      "He is a player that wants to better himself every day. I am happy with the season I had, I felt very comfortable, but for this to be Alexis' first season at Arsenal, he needs the (player of the season) prize."
      Cazorla himself has enjoyed a rise to prominence as one of the Arsenal faithful's favorite players during his three years at the club, and last week the former Villarreal, Recreativo and Malaga man committed to a new contract.
      His incredible skill and unparalleled two-footed ability, not to mention recording a goal almost every four games, has won over the fans' hearts and earned him a lofty spot on their song sheet.
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      The honor of being club captain was -- surprisingly to him, but unsurprisingly to others -- bestowed upon him several times over the course of the season, including during some testing times when both skipper Mikel Arteta and his deputy Per Mertesacker were out injured.
      "The first time that the gaffer told me I would be captain, I was honestly a bit surprised," Cazorla said with a proud smile.
      "I didn't think he would choose me, but it's a responsibility you have to the rest of the squad. I do my best to contribute when I'm the captain and be a point of reference to the rest of the squad."
      The 30-year-old's improvement as a player and flexibility to play in a number of positions has partly been down to a man he once thought of as something of a divine being.
      "When you arrive at a club like Arsenal and you see the boss, who has been here for so many years, he appears almost like a god," Cazorla said of the 65-year-old Frenchman, who became Arsenal manager in 1996.
      "But soon you realize he's a simple man, a trainer who is very close to his players and he makes them feel very comfortable.
      "That is what I found the most impressive when I first arrived at the club."
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      If there is one man who doesn't hold Wenger in high esteem, it is Jose Mourinho. The pair have had several very public spats over the course of their careers, including one occasion in October 2014 when they nearly came to blows on the touchline.
      Prior to Sunday's Community Shield victory, Wenger hadn't recorded a win over his Portuguese rival in 13 attempts. However, with this success, and the signing of Chelsea's talismanic goalkeeper Petr Cech, some see the power shifting from the blue side of London to the red.
      With Wenger finally breaking his duck against "The Special One," this could be the season Arsenal finally ends its long wait for a Premier League title.