Scramble for youth is a risk worth taking

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The Independent Football

By joining the race for Barcelona's teenage sensation, Gerard Piqué Bernabeu, Manchester United are following a well-worn path already taken numerous times by Arsenal's Arsène Wenger. They have targeted a foreign player who is too young - 17 - to have an astronomical price tag but one who has shown enough promise to suggest a bright future.

Those factors reduce the risk of expensive errors in the worldwide search for the best players, with the big clubs in Europe, especially in England, pinching prodigies from elsewhere. Even if a "buying" club has to pay a couple of million pounds in compensation for the likes of a Piqué, it becomes small beer if the player fulfils his apparent talent.

It is not certain that Sir Alex Ferguson will be successful in his bid. Piqué, who was outstanding again for Spain last month in two Under-17 European Championship matches against Russia, is coveted across Europe. Arsenal have been tracking his progress for some time and have held talks about signing him. Cesc Fabregas, one of Piqué's friends and international team-mates, has already been snaffled from Barça by Wenger, and, having settled at Highbury, could yet be a factor if Piqué chooses to move.

Wenger's track record with youthful acquisitions is excellent. Although he has been criticised for hiring mostly from overseas, his view is that in modern Europe, Spain and France are equally valid as Britain as recruiting grounds. There was a brouhaha about poaching in France when he "stole" Nicolas Anelka from Paris St-Germain for £500,000 but the storm passed and Arsenal made a £22.5m profit when Anelka was sold.

Anelka's compatriot, Jérémie Aliadière, was another steal whose move caused outrage, as was Fabregas. Both are becoming established in the first-team squad. The Highbury youth teams contain several foreigners, including the 18-year-old Swedish midfielder, Sebastian Larsson, who has been with Arsenal for three years, and the 19-year-old American striker, Daniel Karbassiyoon, who arrived last summer.

Gérard Houllier is another manager who has used his international connections and experience to secure the services of teens who have been billed as Titans in the making. He signed the French pair Florent Sinama-Pongolle and Anthony Le Tallec in the wake of the 2001 Under-17 World Cup when most people in England had never heard of them. Though they were only 16, the gamble has already paid off to judge from their appearances in Liverpool's first team. Their peaks are a decade away.

As Gianluca Vialli's signing of the 17-year-old Mikael Forssell also showed, in 1998, that foreign managers in England have tended to do best in recruiting young foreigners. But look at most Premiership academies now and you are likely to find at least a couple of teenaged imports. That applies not only to Chelsea and Arsenal, but also to the likes of Aston Villa (where Germany's 22-year-old Thomas Hitzlsperger has already spent four years) and Southampton, where the French midfield pair of Yoann Folly, 18, and Léandre Griffit, 19, have progressed to the first team this season.

While Ferguson has frequently shopped for older, more experienced foreign players, he has had less success with overseas youngsters, certainly ones who have not already played top-class first-team football, as Cristiano Ronaldo had.

That is not for the want of trying. For five years He has been nurturing "feeder" partnerships with clubs to supply talent from as far afield as Belgium, Sweden and South Africa. And he has been pipped to several other targets, including the French pair who went to Liverpool. The bid for Piqué shows fresh intent to succeed where he has failed in the past.

TEENAGE TARGETS ENGLISH CLUBS' RAIDS ON TOP EUROPEAN TALENT

JEREMIE ALIADIERE

(Arsenal)

Lured from France's Clairefontaine academy aged 15, the striker officially became an Arsenal trainee aged 16, in 1999. Arsenal were accused of spying and poaching to get their boy but Arsène Wenger insisted the fuss would die down and it did. Has played 12 first-team games this season, including a couple of minutes in the 5-1 away win at Internazionale.

CESC FABREGAS

(Arsenal)

The Barcelona youth scholar was spotted playing for Spain's Under-16s in Doncaster in November 2002, aged 15. Arsenal courted him, persuading his family to move to London last year, when he signed professionally at Highbury. Became the club's youngest ever first-team player (16 years, 177 days) last October, against Rotherham.

MIKAEL FORSSELL

(Chelsea)

Snapped up by Gianluca Vialli in 1998, aged 17, from HJK Helsinki, despite offers from the likes of Ajax, Internazionale, Sampdoria, Rangers and Liverpool. A storming start didn't prevent him falling down the pecking order but has showed his calibre during loans at Crystal Palace, Borussia Mönchengladbach and now Birmingham City (where he has scored 17 goals in 30 league games this season).

FLORENT SINAMA-PONGOLLE

(Liverpool)

Long known to Gérard Houllier through the Liverpool manager's connections to French youth football, he shone, aged 16, at the Under-17 World Cup in 2001. He was top scorer with nine goals. Houllier did a £6m double deal for him and Anthony Le Tallec immediately. Stayed at Le Havre to gain experience until this season, but is already an Anfield regular.

ANTHONY LE TALLEC

(Liverpool)

Voted joint-best player, along with French team-mate Florent Sinama-Pongolle, at the Under-17 World Cup in 2001. Has been compared to a young Zinedine Zidane and was coveted by the likes of Manchester United and several big Italian clubs. Houllier has cautioned not to expect too much too soon but is establishing himself in the first-team squad.

THOMAS HITZLSPERGER

(Aston Villa)

Born and raised in Munich, he played for Bayern's youth teams from aged seven to 18. Offered a trial by Villa after playing for Germany in the Under-17 World Cup in New Zealand 1999 and moved to Villa Park in 2000. Loaned to Chesterfield by John Gregory but then championed by Graham Taylor, who oversaw his development into a first-team regular.

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