Manchester City's young defender Nedum Onuoha, one of the few players from his side's respected youth academy with genuine hopes of breaking through into the expensive first-team ranks, has cautioned his club against overlooking locally developed talent in their breakneck pursuit of Champions League football.
Onuoha made his City debut more than five years ago in a League Cup home tie against Arsenal – visitors to the City of Manchester stadium in the same tournament tonight – and he still finds himself on the margins of the side, after the arrival of Joleon Lescott and Kolo Touré. He insists that local talent offers a dimension that money can't buy. "With someone who's local you know you can always see they play with a certain type of passion that other people might not be able to," Onuoha told The Independent.
"Although every player who wears the shirt gives it his all, it's a bit different when it's, say, a Stephen Ireland. He's been there, seen it all, knows what you need to do to push on."
The 23-year-old has declared himself to be determined to fight for a starting place but believes that City do run the risk of losing young talent such as 19-year-old Vladimir Weiss, one of the most exciting members of City's FA Youth Cup-winning team who has been granted only three substitutes' appearances for the senior side after his development over a number of years at the club.
Manager Mark Hughes said yesterday that City, who are interested in Everton's Jack Rodwell, are prepared to spend £5m on academy players, as Arsenal have, if necessary. "The best of the academy players will filter in [to the first team], but if we have to look elsewhere to get the quality we need to make the next step into the senior team then we might have to go back into the market." Hughes suggested that "one or two acquisitions" would be added to the signings he has assembled and beyond that the target would be academy players capable of graduating to the first team, plus "players of maybe 21 or 22 who are ready to go straight into the team".
With Chelsea next up in east Manchester in another critical week for the manager, Hughes tried to put tonight's challenge into true perspective, pointing out that Arsenal's "kids" are actually an expensively assembled bunch of players with considerable top-flight experience.
"At times the experience of these so-called youngsters is greater than is suggested, because if you look at the games they've played in, they're not lacking experience," Hughes said. "We think the team we face will have a good smattering of players with Premier League experience, and some will have Champions League experience as well. So they're not quite as young as people think. They do spend significant amounts on younger talent. Some clubs won't go into the market and spend maybe £5m on an 18-year-old but Arsenal have done that on several occasions. It's the model they follow and it's reaped benefits for them."
City are seeking to reach their first semi-final in any competition since 1981 and Hughes, who may again leave Gareth Barry out to aid his recuperation from a groin injury sustained on England duty in Doha, needs more of his players to lead from the front. City captain Touré has not done so consistently since his £14m summer arrival from the Emirates, though his display in the 4-2 league win over Arsenal in September was arguably his best.
Asked yesterday who was the best captain he had worked under, Hughes cited Bryan Robson, far removed from Touré in personality, who "just led by example and was vocal as well". Hughes defended Touré, citing niggles with his back. But it is also the absence of on-field leaders to back up Touré which has looked a problem. "I think you need more than just the significance of one guy," Hughes said. But only Craig Bellamy has looked like a commander for City. "There are different ways to lead," Hughes insisted. "We don't have many that shout and bawl. We have a mix of all elements."
Lukasz Fabianski should return in goal for Arsenal, with Carlos Vela, Aaron Ramsey and Jack Wilshere likely to feature. "It will be a team that has a chance to win," Arsène Wenger said yesterday. "But I want to give a fair chance to those [young] players who have waited for this game."