The Nick Townsend column: Football from the gods and heaven help us when Arsenal pups grow up

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The Independent Football

There have been times when Cesc Fabregas's pre-eminence has been tainted with childlike impetuosity and petulance; at others, the Spaniard has displayed enlightenment way beyond his 20 years. It was the latter case when the midfielder reminded us, andhis team-mates: "We havedone nothing... we want to be there at the end," as he distilled Tuesday night's achievement into hard reality.

It appeared a mite incongruous, considering that a few minutes earlier he had raced across the San Siro pitch, almost delirious in his delight, into the arms of his manager, having broken the deadlock and Milan's already fragile spirit. Yet he is right to be circumspect. Arsenal will require further kit-bag loads of Tuesday's character and sense of mutual trust, allied to their marvellously diverse talents, if they are to survive the ardours of this particular expedition.

For all the plaudits bestowed on the Gunners, it is pertinent to ask: was this humbling of the Champions' League champions and seven-times winners a statement of intent on the march to Moscow? Or, to borrow that cliché beloved of plucky lower-League FA Cup contestants, will this ultimately prove to have been Arsenal's final?

This was, indeed, football to make us swoon, with Arsenal having an imperiousness about them which will not have gone unnoticed elsewhere in Europe, nor among their potential opponents in England. Yet one should be wary of too many superlatives. Milan's league form is desperate – they are 18 points adrift of the leaders, Internazionale, and have won only four Serie A home games from 13 – and there was an increasing fatigue about some of their component parts which always threatened to seize up underthe bonnet as Arsenal pressed fiercely on the accelerator pedal.

To secure that elusive prize in Moscow, Arsène Wenger's men need to be blessed by the draw and may have to forfeit their season's other major ambition, the Premier League title. Yet, despite those caveats, there is cause for optimism.

Contrast Wenger's current team with that which contested the final in Paris in 2006, when they were defeated 2-1 by Barcelona after playing with 10 men for almost 70 minutes, and you would be persuaded that this vintage is superior. To remind ourselves, that 2006 team consisted of Lehmann (dismissed after 18 minutes and replaced by Almunia); Eboué, Cole, Gilberto, Touré, Campbell, Hleb, Fabregas (replaced by Flamini, 74), Henry, Ljungberg and Pires (sacrificed after Lehmann's red).

The interesting element is not those missing but those who remain. It is a pointer to Wenger's evolutionary process that six players who took some part that night remain at the club, and they significantly include a trio – Fabregas, Alexander Hleb and Mathieu Flamini – who have emerged all the more potent as pivotal midfield figures inwhat is conspicuously more of a team and less 10 supporting roles in attendance of the scene-stealing if supremely blessed Thierry Henry.

Some contend that Tuesday's side still lack experience at this most pressured level. In that case, heaven help their opponents when they grow up. But in reality they have learnt swiftly,if at times painfully. All that has recently occurred – the 5-1 Carling Cup semi-final exit atthe hands of Tottenham;Emmanuel Adebayor's spat with Nicklas Bendtner; that 4-0 FA Cup humiliation at Manchester United; events at St Andrew's, when Arsenal lost a player with a badly broken leg; and seemingly a captain with a peculiar sense of priorities – has aged this cask and brought it maturity. Though conventional wisdom is that adversity tends to damage a side's fortitude, great sides ultimately prosper from it.

It was a curious spectacle; that of Fabregas running to Wenger after his 30-yarder found the net like a tracer bullet, like a son seeking his father's approval. It says everything about Wenger's standing among his players, although the manager is wary to compare the Spaniard's progress to that of Steven Gerrard and Cristiano Ronaldo. "He's still young," Wenger said. "You want him to develop as a player. The rest will follow. I saw Gerrard at 20 and now there's a lot more to come from him. We want [Fabregas] to continue to develop as a complete midfielder. What you saw on Tuesday was that he can defend and attack. That was most pleasing."

He agreed that Fabregas and Flamini are one of the strongest midfield pairings he has had. "They are technically good and mobile going forward. Before we had players with more impact. They are less physically strong in the challenge than Vieira and Petit, but they have more mobility, have a good understanding and cover each other very well."

As always, there will be those casting covetous eyes over the likes of Fabregas and Adebayor, but Wenger's genius lies not only in nurturing young talent but also in retaining it.

He prefers to deploy his best team for all but domestic cup competitions, and rarely encounters squabbles over rotation. Rarely do you hear a complaint (oh, all right then, apart fromLehmann). If Fabregas, Hleb and Flamini were irrepressible, despite the presence of Gennaro Gattuso, Andrea Pirlo and Co, Tuesday was also a night for the captain, William Gallas, to exude his authority, and even for a splendid exhibition from the oft-ridiculed Philippe Senderos, as that pair, and the excellent Bacary Sagna and Gaël Clichy, restricted Kaka and Pato tofew opportunities.

Now there will be much talk of the Double. It is an unlikely outcome for any of the English clubs still in contention for domestic and European honours. Wenger will be acutely aware of what perils potentially await when teams attack on two fronts.

There is, however, every chance of an all-English Champions' League final. Perverse, isn't it, at a time when England cannot muster a Euro 2008 challenge. Until you reflect upon the dearth of Englishmen onthe collective teamsheets. That debate is for another day.

This is a week to laud Arsenal and their powers of recovery after a wretched fortnight. Although it is perhaps wise to hesitate before fully endorsing their Champions' League claims and remind ourselves that we have seen Wenger's men thrusting a devilish concoction, leading to self-destruction, down their own throats before...

Ashton keen to prune blemishes from his wilting Red Rose

It has been reported that Danny Cipriani dated one of the Cheeky Girls, which he denies. He has been linked with a woman who started life as a man. And most recently, he visited a nightclub after midnight a few days before an international, though apparently not to use it as a pick-up joint, but as a drop-off point – of tickets for friends.

Thus far in his nascent international career, that is what the public (at least those who are non-rugby union cognoscenti) know of the playmaking prodigy.

And you sense that his exclusion by England's head coach, Brian Ashton, from yesterday's Calcutta Cup match at Murrayfield, after being named to make his first start at full-back, was less the act of a Victorian-style disciplinarian determined to be seen exuding authority than that of a man determined to drag the exploits of Cipriani back to the back pages.

The hierarchy at his club, Wasps, not only voiced their displeasure at the punishment but exacerbated the situation by naming him as a replacement for their club fixture today. Yet they know full well that professional sportsmen today are judged by elevated standards. Impeccable behaviour is expected, particularly of young men who represent their country at major sports. One Radio Five Live listener concluded that if he was guilty of anything it was not so much "inappropriate behaviour" as being dim-witted. Certainly, given the previous fascination with his lifestyle by the red-tops, his presence there was at least naïve. Was Ashton's decision merely "pour encourager les autres?" Perhaps. Yet it could rebound on him, say critics. What, they argue, if England perform badly, Cipriani plays a blinder in that club match and Iain Balshaw has a stinker?

But that is scarcely the point. If Ashton feels a decision needs to be made he will presumably be content to live with the consequences. Some will question, though, whether the same standards would have applied to say, Jonny Wilkinson, just before a World Cup final. The difference is, though, that Wilkinson, for all his celebrity status, would not be discovered in such a compromising situation. So the true explanation, which you can accept or deride, seems to be Ashton's evident belief that any possible excesses of this particular Red Rose performer should be nipped in the bud.

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