Wenger to give youth a spin in Greek cauldron

 

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The Independent Football

The freedom in which Arsenal can conclude their Group F campaign at Olympiakos tonight is a measure of their progress from turbulent beginnings this season but Arsène Wenger is nevertheless keen to ensure his team do not arrive in Greece merely to bear gifts.

Having arrived here with nothing at stake given their unassailable position as group winners, the Arsenal manager is expected to ring the changes yet retain a stronger presence than their last visit to Athens in remarkably similar circumstances.

Two years ago, Arsenal travelled to the Georgios Karaiskakis Stadium with their qualification assured but their opponents' fate uncertain. Wenger selected the youngest side fielded in Champions League history, yet produced a spirited display in a 1-0 defeat courtesy of Leonardo's lone strike.

A combination of fringe players and promising youngsters are likely to comprise the starting XI as Wenger attempts to maintain the club's current momentum while, to a lesser extent, protecting the integrity of the competition given any of Olympiakos, Marseilles and Dortmund could join Arsenal in the last 16.

Equally of motivation is a sense that the changed line-up that faced Manchester City last week did not deserve a Carling Cup quarter-final exit given their combative performance. "It is not about who we left at home, it is who we will play that is important," said Wenger, who will take charge of his 200th European match this evening.

"I know we have a big responsibility and I would be very disappointed if our winning attitude was not completely right. We walk out there with immense desire to try and win the game."

A hostile atmosphere awaits with the Greek champions desperate to progress to the knockout stage for the third successive season but the serenity produced by Arsenal's advancement will give Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain among others the chance to gain experience.

After a chastening debut in August's 8-2 defeat at Manchester United, the 18-year-old subsequently became the youngest English goalscorer in the Champions League after scoring in Arsenal's 2-1 win over Olympiakos earlier in the group and was encouraging as the most defiant figure against City.

Oxlade-Chamberlain is yet to start a match away from home but Wenger is convinced the former Southampton winger will be undaunted by the intimidating environment created by around 30,000 passionate supporters.

"I believe it is another opportunity for him to show that he can do that away from home and I am confident he will," said Wenger. "He is a similar type of character to Emmanuel Frimpong because once he is on the pitch, he is not scared of anybody and they give it all."

Frimpong continues his convalescence from an anterior cruciate knee injury that sidelined him for the entirety of last season and the Ghana-born 19-year-old admitted last night to doubts he would ever play for the club.

"I knew I would come back to playing football but I felt I was never going to get a chance at Arsenal again," he said. "But in football, you can't predict anything and when I came back I carried on from where I left off and I have got my chance again."

Olympiakos, who went top of the Greek Super League with a 2-0 victory over Panaitolikos last weekend, will qualify with victory if Marseilles fail to win in Dortmund and a draw could even be enough depending on the result in Germany.

Today is the Feast of St Nicholas in Greece, a nationwide event that marks the formal beginning of the festive season; present-giving may now be en vogue but Arsenal insist they are not in the mood.

Key confrontations

Ivan Marcano v Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain

Oxlade-Chamberlain's displays have been variable this season: poor against Bolton in the Carling Cup, but lively against Manchester City. Tonight the 18-year-old will face the canny Marcano, but if Oxlade-Chamberlain can isolate him, he has the speed and the footwork to get past him.

 

Pablo Orbaiz v Emmanuel Frimpong

Another match-up of experience and youth: 32-year-old Orbaiz played for years at Athletic Bilbao, and can certainly match the feisty Frimpong for nous, if not for brute strength. If Frimpong is booked, he will need to be careful.

 

Rafik Djebbour v Thomas Vermaelen

Algerian striker Djebbour is scoring heavily in the Greek Superleague, but his powerful physique and assertive near-post runs should be well matched by Thomas Vermaelen.

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