Benitez left baffled while Wenger hails 'future of the club'

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The Independent Football

Arsène Wenger hailed his youthful Arsenal side after they stormed into the semi-finals of the Carling Cup last night - and admitted he was likely to field a similarly raw line-up against Tottenham Hotspur over two legs in the semi-finals.

A team sprinkled with teenage understudies and spearheaded by the four-goal Julio Baptista trounced an under-strength Liverpool in their rearranged quarter-final at Anfield. The manner and the margin of the victory - the first time Liverpool had conceded six at home since Sunderland's spree in 1930 - prompted Wenger to suggest they deserved to take on Spurs for a place in the final.

"I'm highly tempted to keep the same team," the Frenchman said after the 6-3 triumph. "These players have earned the right after beating Everton, West Bromwich and now Liverpool. We feel that the future of the club is very promising."

Asked whether the quality of the players who came in had taken him by surprise, Wenger said: "No. I believed we had a chance to win, but I didn't expect to score six. I was very pleased with the fluency of our game and the way we just continued to play after they had made it 1-1."

After Arsenal's 3-1 FA Cup win at Liverpool 72 hours earlier, Rafael Benitez argued that Arsenal had greater spending power. His comments were rightly derided, but this sequel proved that Arsenal do boast a vastly superior youth-scouting system.

Cesc Fabregas, 19, is a familiar face, but his excellence was matched by prodigies such as Alexandre Song, 19, a Cameroonian midfielder who was as combative as he was composed, and Johan Djourou, also 19, an imposing Swiss central defender. Ironically, the biggest name, Theo Walcott, was the most peripheral of the junior Gunners. "And we still have some good players away on loan," Wenger added.

Baptista, a veteran of 25, deservedly received his manager's plaudits after becoming the first visitor to score four at Anfield since Wolves' Dennis Westcott 50 years ago last month. "I always believed he could deliver," Wenger said of the much-maligned Brazilian. "I'm impressed with his mental strength and team attitude."

He also made a point of mentioning the contribution of Jérémie Aliadière, whose career at Arsenal seemed to have stalled after loan spells at Celtic, West Ham and Wolves. "He was also outstanding," Wenger said of the 23-year-old Frenchman.

Benitez appeared understandably perplexed, Arsenal having managed to score nine times from 11 goal attempts over the two ties. "I thought we were working really hard," the Spaniard said. "Every time we conceded a goal it was really difficult to explain. It was the same in the FA Cup."

Injuries to Mark Gonzalez, Stephen Warnock and Luis Garcia had played their part in Liverpool's downfall, but Benitez refused to criticise Jerzy Dudek, who contrived to put in an even more error-prone goalkeeping performance than on Saturday. "We win together and we lose together," he said.

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