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 Posted by ESPN Staff
Feb 23, 2007

Arsenal youngsters face their biggest test

It is the definitive test of Arsene Wenger's youth policy. A cup final against the current Premiership champions, the chance to compete with 'world class' internationals assembled for around £200million, and an opportunity to prove to everyone that he was right all along.

As an interesting aside, the ongoing psychological battle between himself and 'The Special One' Jose Mourinho makes for a mouth-watering cup tie. It happens every time the teams meet, but the fires ahead of the final in Cardiff are being stoked with more vigour than usual.

Mourinho, ever the catalyst, was quick to point out that he was above his rival in status as he had already added a Champions League winners medal to his collection. Wenger, however, derided his claims by saying: 'Plenty of managers have won the Champions League who will not be considered great managers.

'What is important is that you look at their careers in 10, 15 or 20 years,' he added. 'What kind of quality have you brought through in your work and on how consistent a level have you done it?'

Victory over the other manager carries extra weight when you consider their history. Mourinho famously labelled Wenger 'a voyeur' for being overly concerned with goings-on at other clubs; while Wenger has often criticised Chelsea's spending policy after Abramovich's millions were loaded into the safe at Stamford Bridge.

Yet while Wenger's side went the entire 2003/04 season unbeaten, Chelsea have dominated the league for the past two seasons, winning the Carling Cup as well as the Premiership in 2004/05 and Sunday will be the first all-London final in the competitions history.

Chelsea boast the likes of Andriy Shevchenko, Didier Drogba and Michael Essien, all exceptional internationals whose price tags suggest that the world views them as such. Yet Arsenal have chosen to put their faith in youth.

'I believe the boys have the right mental strengths to finish the job, they have already shown that,' Wenger said this week.

It has been a successful competition for Wenger's youngsters, reaching the semis last year and seeing off the likes of Liverpool and Tottenham en route to the final this campaign, but in Chelsea they face an altogether different proposition.

Wenger is yet to beat a Mourinho team and the brash 'Portugeezer' seems to have a hold over the studious Frenchman. Beaten in the Champions League quarter-finals three seasons ago under Ranieri, Arsenal have failed to take all three points in the Premiership against Chelsea since Mourinho's arrival and Chelsea did 'the double' over them last season, often exposing the Gunners' lack of physical power.

This season however saw Arsenal put up more of a fight in a 1-1 draw, and it took Michael Essien's superb strike in the final minutes to save Chelsea's blushes at Stamford Bridge.

In Didier Drogba, Chelsea have the league's best striker and someone who has caused no end of trouble to the Arsenal defence, especially the inexperienced Phillippe Senderos. Partnered with Shevchenko, who has hit a bit of form now having scored in the Champions League against FC Porto, Drogba will be the one striking the most fear into the hearts of Arsenal's young guns.

Chelsea do, however, have mounting injury problems, while Arsenal are gradually getting players back from long-term absences. John Terry, the latest casualty for the Blues, will obviously be a huge loss to the champions. Without Terry's inspirational leadership at the heart of defence, Chelsea have looked fallible already this season. The makeshift pairing of Michael Essien and Ricardo Carvalho is likely to figure again in Cardiff.

England left back Ashley Cole, who would have been keen to put one over on his old team, will also be missing with a knee injury and although he has made his comeback in the reserves, will not be fit enough for the final, with Wayne Bridge deputising.

Chelsea are lucky in that they have the resources to cover various positions across the pitch, although with the loss of Robert Huth and William Gallas in the summer, the centre of defence is looking woefully under-strength and Khalid Boulharouz has done nothing to dispel the fans' fears since his arrival.

Wenger has different issues to contend with. Notably, who to rest and who to play. He has already claimed that the kids who got them to the final will play, so that means no place for Jens Lehmann (who is suspended anyway), Thierry Henry or the returning William Gallas.

There is an argument that Arsenal may be better off without this trio. Lehmann is easy riled and always carries the potential to be sent off, as we saw with his theatrical duel with Didier Drogba in the league. Henry has been carrying a foot injury and looks half the player he was last year, particularly in the bigger games; and while Gallas is a world-class defender, he has barely played this season due to injuries and will be better off regaining full fitness before he returns.

That means that the likes of Denilson, Abou Diaby, Theo Walcott and Johann Djourou will get their chances to impress on the big stage. They have proved up to the task so far, and Wenger will no doubt mix in the experience of Kolo Toure, Tomas Rosicky and Cesc Fabregas (at age 19) to give the side balance.

Everyone will be looking to see whether or not these kids can perform like they did against Bolton in the FA Cup a few weeks ago, but it will be Toure's battle with Drogba, as well as that of Frank Lampard and Fabregas in the centre of the pitch, that will prove crucial in the overall result.

The last time London's finest met in a major final was in 2002, when Arsenal won 2-0 in the FA Cup. Chelsea will be looking for vengeance, as well as a repeat of their 2005 Community Shield win, where Drogba ran riot.

Mourinho will be hoping to expose Arsenal's inexperience, while Wenger will be looking for a sign that his youngsters can compete in the Premiership for the next decade. After Sunday, he will certainly know one way or the other.

Probable teams:

Chelsea: Petr Cech; Paulo Ferreira, Ricardo Carvalho, Michael Essien, Wayne Bridge, Claude Makelele, Frank Lampard, Michael Ballack, Arjen Robben, Didier Drogba, Andriy Shevchenko.

Arsenal: Manuel Almunia; Justin Hoyte, Kolo Toure, Philippe Senderos, Gael Clichy, Denilson, Abou Diaby, Francesc Fabregas; Theo Walcott, Emmanuel Adebayor, Julio Baptista.


  • Any comments? Email Jon Carter