Football: Wenger's reserves face test of mettle

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The Independent Online
ARSENE WENGER knew it had to happen sooner or later and he will get a daunting insight tonight into life without the famous defence which has underpinned Arsenal's glory for more than a decade.

But what is already certain to be a Greek tragedy for boss Wenger in the no-win situation of Arsenal's Champions' League swansong against Panathinaikos, could also be, the Frenchman hopes, a glimpse into a new bright Highbury future.

Thirteen of his injury-hit squad will miss the final Group E game if Martin Keown and Remi Garde fail fitness tests on groin injuries. That would leave 19-year-old Matthew Upson to step into the boots of Tony Adams, out for six weeks with an agonising back complaint.

The suspended Lee Dixon and injured Nigel Winterburn are also certain to be missing from football's most enduring defensive unit, but Upson is showing typical Arsenal fortitude under fire and insisted: "I seriously believe I'm ready for this. I'll show I've got the same great Arsenal spirit that Tony has."

There could be no more intimidating stage for Upson to prove that one day he could become the new Adams - the Olympic Stadium will be packed with nearly 100,000 hostile Greek fans ready to try to roar their team through to the quarter-finals.

Panathinaikos, the victims of Arsenal's only Champions' League win at Wembley in September, are licking their lips at the thought of the severely depleted team Wenger must field - no Dennis Bergkamp, Marc Overmars, Emmanuel Petit, Patrick Vieira, Stephen Hughes or Winterburn through injuries. There will also be no Ray Parlour who is suspended after being sent off against Lens at Wembley two weeks ago.

Instead Upson stands by in a line of young rookies for only his 11th first-team appearance since moving 18 months ago from Luton, where he played just once in the league and yet was considered such a hot prospect that Arsenal paid pounds 1.5million for him.

Wenger admits his fears for Upson and all the other inexperienced players he will be forced to use again as stop-gaps. But the 6ft 1in defender said: "I came here to learn and make a name for myself. Now I could get my chance in a European Cup match and I'm looking forward to it. It's not an ideal situation. The manager knows he's got to change the Arsenal defence sooner or later, but you don't want to have to do it all at once.

"Personally I feel the Adams-Keown partnership is the best around and, hopefully for the club, it will go on a lot longer yet. I've learned a lot from just watching them, and my positional sense is already 100 per cent better since I came to Arsenal."

Nelson Vivas has failed to live up to his billing for Arsenal, but they will need his experience at right-back tomorrow. Wenger may be forced to play a back five for the first time in his two years at Highbury, with Upson on the left of three central defenders. Gilles Grimandi and stand- in captain Steve Bould will be the other two if Keown fails his fitness test - and that could also bring in teenager David Grondin, while Alberto Mendez looks certain to occupy Parlour's right midfield role.