Coronation postponed by Wenger's young guns

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The Independent Online

There was a sense of what might have been in the north London air at Highbury last night. The 1-0 defeat of Tottenham was the Gunners' seventh win in nine unbeaten matches - championship form in most seasons.

There was a sense of what might have been in the north London air at Highbury last night. The 1-0 defeat of Tottenham was the Gunners' seventh win in nine unbeaten matches - championship form in most seasons.

Pre-Roman Abramovich Arsène Wenger would be contemplating his third Double in eight seasons. Instead, Arsenal are playing only for pride, and the low-grade consolation prize of the extra week's holiday which second place, and automatic entry in the Champions League, secures.

As Manchester United's current form underlines, when you have spent a decade chasing titles this is not much of an incentive.

A north London derby is, however, always worth raising a gallop for and Arsenal, as at Stamford Bridge last week, were determined to demonstrate their continuing quality. That they could, also, a year to the day since they won the championship with a draw at White Hart Lane, delay Chelsea's coronation was an added bonus.

In doing so they emphasised that, while this season will be remembered as a lost opportunity, the future carries promise, even when Chelsea's roubles are factored into the unequal equation.

This was evident inside the opening minute as the ball was moved swiftly between Philippe Senderos, Kolo Touré, Cesc Fabregas and Robin van Persie to release Jose Antonio Reyes. The Spaniard went round Paul Robinson, but hit the side netting. The average age of that quintet: 20 years.

It was Fabregas who set up the [opening] goal, showing bravery as well as vision as he drifted past two tackles and accepted the bite of a third as he waited for the right moment to send Reyes through the defensive cover.

Reyes, having struggled to settle in England, may not be here next season but the others should be around for years. Touré has come through a difficult period in terms of his form, which in the long term will benefit him.

As one magnificently timed tackle on Freddie Kanouté illustrated, Senderos is developing so quickly Sol Campbell has been allowed the luxury of a slow rehabilitation. The maturity of Fabregas defies belief. Van Persie looks to be learning the right lessons from his foolish loss of control at Southampton.

With Patrick Vieira and Robert Pires returned to form, Thierry Henry still peerless and Campbell awaiting a recall there is a solid platform to graft on to this potential. And in the wings wait another clutch of young bloods including Gael Clichy, Arturo Lupoli and Mathieu Flamini.

There is also the prospect of greater financial muscle. As the sight of crans on the western skyline reminded us before the light went, Ashburton Grove is on the way and with it increased revenue streams. They may be small change to Abramovich but Wenger has proved in the past he can work to a budget, finding raw diamonds he can polish.

Last night's demonstration of the brilliance of youth was timely for the day had begun unpromisingly for Arsenal with the Evening Standard front page trumpeting "Arsenal star in punch-up"."Star" proved to be something of an exaggeration as Quincy Owusu-Abeyie is a reserve with only a handful of first team outings behind him.

Those few appearances have, though, been so explosive it is clear the young Dutchman has the talent to become a star. He also, however, has a enough of a temperament problem for Ajax to release him. There was thus concern at Arsenal when he was reportedly arrested after being involved in a brawl following the PFA Player of the Year dinner.

The spectre of the failure to discipline Jermaine Pennant looms large at Highbury but Van Persie's growing maturity offers hope that Owusu-Abeyie will also have his energies channelled in the right direction.

He has much to gain for Arsenal, on the evidence of this spring, will be challenging Chelsea for a while yet.

This season may have eluded their grasp but the 11-10 odds being offered by some bookmakers on Chelsea winning next year's title were looking decidedly ungenerous last night.

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