When Arsène Wenger rhapsodised yesterday about how his young players have learnt to love playing for Arsenal, it was not just a manager glorying in the achievements of his emergent team. Now that Wenger has rescued Arsenal's season, and is on the brink of a Champions League semi-final, he knows that a new challenge is on the horizon: keeping this side together.
Against Villarreal at the Emirates tonight, Wenger's players have the advantage of an away goal from the 1-1 draw in Spain last week and an unbeaten Premier League record that stretches 18 games. That they are solidly entrenched in fourth place in the league, eight points ahead of Aston Villa in fifth, is vindication enough for Wenger's faith in his team. But eliminate Villarreal for a Champions League semi-final place and suddenly anything is possible for Arsenal, although it is next season when the real potential – not to mention experience – should have its effect in this young team. Before then, however, comes the summer when Cesc Fabregas, Emmanuel Adebayor and Theo Walcott become fair game for the more acquisitive clubs in European football.
Wenger, however, is confident that there is something more than the promise of a transfer to a big, new club that binds his current side together. "We have worked very hard with these players to get them into the shape of a great team and I believe that has given them the taste to stay together," he said. "When we go for young players it is also to get them to love the club, to love to be together and to love to achieve together."
The Arsenal manager is, as usual, banking on something more important but less tangible than money and fame to keep Fabregas and the rest out of the clutches of Real Madrid. Given what Wenger has done this season, it is difficult to argue with him. Arsenal began with five defeats in their first 12 league games; now you have to go back to 2 December for their last domestic defeat, and that was in the Carling Cup to Burnley. Those are the statistics but Wenger frames the argument for his players staying at Arsenal a lot more elegantly.
"A team sport is about achieving something together in a positive human atmosphere," he said. "When you educate players it is to give them the taste of what football can give you in your life. Yes, it is a good living but it is not only that – you can get a good living anywhere. What you cannot get anywhere is the feeling of that human experience a team sport can give you.
"I know it is difficult to understand nowadays," Wenger added, "but the needs of human beings are exactly the same as 50 years ago. The experiences that you had when you were a child or in a team will remain with you for the rest of your life. When players have grown as a team together it is something special."
The short answer is that it will mean more if Wenger's latest young charges fulfil their potential with Arsenal rather than someone else. The lesson was aimed at the big names but also those such as Denilson and Bacary Sagna, whom he has plucked from relative obscurity and stuck with through their tricky patches earlier in the season. Kieran Gibbs will get his first Champions League start tonight, another player whose development has delighted Wenger.
There are injury problems of course, primarily in defence where William Gallas, Gaël Clichy and Johan Djourou are all out. That did not deter Wenger, who seemed positively thrilled by the challenge. Would it be an education for Gibbs playing against Robert Pires? "Yes," replied Wenger, "for Pires as well".
There are doubts over Robin van Persie's fitness for tonight and Wenger said that how his groin injury responds today will dictate the kind of team he plays, although it appears he does not regard Fabregas's more advanced position as a long-term solution. Villarreal are without their injured captain Marcos Senna, but the Turkish striker Nihat Kahveci is back in contention.
Did this young team owe Wenger a debt of loyalty not to follow Alexander Hleb and Mathieu Flamini out the door this summer? "They owe me nothing," Wenger said. "I count myself as lucky because I can work the way I like." His team, he admits, is "a bit in advance of planned timing" but he does not fear the greater experience of the other Champions League contenders. "Experience is important but also experience is usually overrated," he said. "This is a good opportunity to show that."
Fabregas confident of surviving spitting row as FA deadline looms
Cesc Fabregas will deny Phil Brown's allegations that he spat at Hull City's assistant manager Brian Horton when he sends his response to the Football Association today, but that does not mean he will not be charged.
The Arsenal midfielder's deadline to make a response to Hull's allegations expires today, with the player confident he will be exonerated over the events at the Emirates on 17 March. He has already "categorically" denied spitting at Horton and having seen Hull's submission, he does not believe they have any evidence that proves he did.
In a recent similar spitting case between Richie Wellens, of Doncaster Rovers, and Swansea's Leon Britton – where no video evidence was available – the FA charged Wellens. They did so on Britton's evidence alone and Wellens completely denies the charge. He has requested a personal hearing.
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