Wenger hopes youth will shine in Athens

Arsenal manager rests stars ahead of Premier League trip to Liverpool
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The Independent Football

Arsene Wenger has long viewed certain cup competitions with disdain, flooding his team with youngsters until the latter stages of a competition. Even by his standards, however, the squad the Arsenal manager has assembled for tonight's concluding Group H game against Olympiakos in Athens sets new levels of inexperience.

With qualification for the last 16 assured following last month's victory over Standard Liège and his first-choice players seemingly picking up new injuries by the week, Wenger has named a youthful squad, opting to rest Cesc Fabregas, Andrei Arshavin and Thomas Vermaelen ahead of their Premier League trip to Liverpool on Sunday. Ten of the 18-man squad are teenagers, the likely starting line-up have appeared a total of 70 times for the club, with Alexandre Song accounting for 20 of those.

Former Manchester United defender and veteran of 77 Champions League appearances, Mikaël Silvestre provides the experienced head in defence at 32. Midfielder Tomas Rosicky was in contention following his recovery from a knee injury, only to suffer a groin injury during Saturday's win over Stoke.

Theo Walcott may feature after recovering from a hamstring problem, while Aaron Ramsey, England Under-21 midfielder Jack Wilshere and Mexico international Carlos Vela have all previously played in Europe's elite competition.

The reserve-team captain Kyle Bartley, along with 18-year-olds Craig Eastmond, Luke Ayling and Thomas Cruise – a left-back yet to make a first-team appearance for Arsenal – have also been included.

Wenger said: "All of the players that I have left have little knocks and need a rest, so I travel with a very young team. We should have a good mixture between young and experienced players." He conceded that he has left his methods open to criticism should Arsenal lose a fourth game in six tonight following defeats at Sunderland and Manchester City and at home to Chelsea. "It is a risk, because you know that if you do not win the game you will be criticised. But I trust these players to do well. They are young but have a lot of experience of big games and it will be another chance for them to show how good they are."

One youngster could be on his way out of the club, albeit temporarily. Highly-rated midfielder Wilshere could depart on loan next month, with Celtic, Rangers and Middlesbrough linked with the 17-year-old. "There is a chance, if we have an interesting opportunity," Wenger said of a loan move for Wilshere, who has made five appearances for the first team. "I would prefer it to be in the Premier League but the top level of the Championship could be interesting. It is important for Jack to play, so if we find a good opportunity we will consider it."

Olympiakos, whose form has improved dramatically since the arrival of Brazilian coach Zico in September, require a point to confirm their place in the knockout stages, and midfielder Luciano Galletti remains confident of gaining a result tonight for the Greek league leaders. "Arsenal is a big team that has its sights set on the final but we want to beat them," he said.

Midfielder Jaouad Zairi has recovered from the thigh injury that kept him out of Saturday's 1-0 win at Xanthi, although defender Vassilis Torosidis is sidelined with swine flu.

Group H

Results so far: Arsenal 2 S Liège 0, AZ Alkmaar 0 Olympiakos 0; Arsenal 4 AZ Alkmaar 1, S Liège 2 Olympiakos 0; AZ Alkmaar 1 Arsenal 1, Olympiakos 2 S Liège 1; Arsenal 2 Olympiakos 0, AZ Alkmaar 1 S Liège 1; Olympiakos 1 AZ Alkmaar 0, S Liège 2, Arsenal 3.

Remaining fixtures: Tonight: Olympiakos v Arsenal, Standard Liège v AZ Alkmaar.