Wenger forced to rely on Mannone to repel Liege

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The Independent Football

Vito Mannone will be Arsenal's last line of defence as they embark on their latest quest to lift the Champions League. The rookie goalkeeper, 21, but with only three senior appearances behind him, is pitched into the cauldron of the Stade Maurice Dufrasne as Arsenal's senior goalkeeper, Manuel Almunia, has a chest infection, and regular back-up Lukasz Fabianski is still recovering from a knee operation.

Arsenal will also be without Robin van Persie (knee) and Denilson (back), while Theo Walcott, Samir Nasri and Andrei Arshavin remain absent but Eduardo da Silva, fresh from his reprieve on appeal by Uefa, will play.

Arsenal paid Atalanta £350,000 compensation for Mannone, then 17, four years ago. His experience is limited to a pair of unhappy loan appearances at Barnsley in 2006, and the final match of last season, a dead match against Stoke which Arsenal won 4-1. "It is a big challenge for a young boy to come in to a Champions League game with such pressure," admitted Arsène Wenger, "especially away from home and at a ground with a heated atmosphere such as this one.

"He's only played one first-team game, but at least he's played one where he did quite well. I'm confident in him. Anyway, if you look at the number of shots we have had on our goal recently, there have not been too many, unfortunately the last two games [during which Arsenal have conceded six goals] we got hit hard with every goal chance that went in."

Understudying Mannone will be 19-year-old Pole Wojciech Szczesny, signed from Legia Warsaw's youth system at 16. Both players, under the new Premier League regulations, would count as home-grown. That none of Arsenal's four goalkeepers are English says much about the state of English goalkeeping at present.

Wenger revealed Arsenal used a "forensic expert who proved [Eduardo] had been touched on his ankle" to ensure the Croatian striker would be available tonight. "I'm very happy to have Eduardo back as we have plenty of offensive players out, to be without him as well would be one too many," he said.

Standard are back-to-back Belgian champions, unbeaten at home in 2009, worried Liverpool in last year's Champions League qualifying, then knocked Everton out of the Uefa Cup. Milan Jovanovic, the centre-forward, is a handful as is, in a less conventional manner, his partner Dieudonne Mbokani. However, American defender Oguchi Onyewu has left for Milan and, at the weekend, inspirational captain Steven Defour was lost to a broken foot.

Like Arsenal they have a player controversially eligible. Axel Witsel – named, it is said, after Guns 'N' Roses singer Axel Rose – has been banned for eight matches from domestic competition following a crude tackle against rivals Anderlecht, but Uefa refused a request by the Belgian FA to extend the suspension to the Champions League. The 20-year-old Witsel, last season's Belgian player of the year, will seek to subdue Cesc Fabregas.

Laszlo Boloni, Standard's Romanian coach, knows what it is like to win the European Cup having been in the Steaua Bucharest team which defeated Terry Venables' Barcelona on penalties in 1986. Boloni, who missed his kick, said, "Arsenal play the best football in England. In Europe you can only compare Barcelona to them. Even when we are at 100 per cent we are still a little bit short to beat such a great team, but this team has an ability to surprise big teams."

He will not be the only one surprised if Arsenal lose, despite Mannone's baptism, but neither is a repeat likely of Arsenal's last result here, a 7-0 Cup-Winners' Cup win in 1993.


The fee paid by Arsenal to Atalanta four years ago as compensation to complete the move for then 17-year-old Mannone.