Fabregas: favourite son in family affair

Teenager shows remarkable maturity as self-belief grows in climate of careful nurture
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The Independent Football

There is a real sense of optimism stirring over Arsenal's new Emirates Stadium for the coming season. With the transfer uncertainty surrounding Ashley Cole and Jose Antonio Reyes, Arsenal could easily have crumbled, facing a season of uncertainty and doubt.

But Arsène Wenger's young guns are up for the challenge, as they showed against Dinamo Zagreb in Croatia last week. In Cesc Fabregas, Wenger has a player who epitomises his policy of giving young players a chance if they are good enough.

Fabregas stood out in last season's Champions' League with a series of mature displays remarkable for a 19-year-old. The diminutive Spain midfielder says there is no better club in the world to be at if you are a teenager looking to break through at the top level.

The Catalan, who came to England at 16 as an unknown from Barcelona, says of his manager: "He gives you the opportunities you need, in the cups and in the League. He's not scared of giving you opportunities. Then, of course, it's up to us to take them or not.

"If you look at any club in Europe you won't see seven players under 21 in a top League game. I think that sometimes people don't realise what Ars-enal is like. Outside everything is so big, but inside everything is so small - it's just like a family.

"People have said that I could be playing for Real [Madrid]," he adds. "They came to my agent but I knew there wasn't a better club to play for. I know I'm at a big club with a big team - great players and a great manager. As I said before, at my age, or any age, I don't think there's a better club to be at than Arsenal."

Thierry Henry, who arrived at Highbury aged 21 having already played for Wenger at Monaco at 17, is effusive in his praise of the new starlet. "Cesc is amazing," says the striker. "To go into an international side like Spain at such a young age, then go to a World Cup and play the way he did [in Germany] - it was amazing.

"He does it at Arsenal, and we have never had any doubts about his ability. He had the courage to take the No 4 shirt this season, and straightaway showed it did not affect him, scoring two goals in Zagreb. He handles it all so well. I have never known anyone so young and yet so mature.

"Sometimes it takes a player a while to shine, but Cesc settled in from the start," Henry says. "He holds the key to our game. I've always said you win or lose a game in the middle of the park, and Cesc holds the key to our midfield. He can pass and he is not afraid to put his foot in. I think he can go on to become one of the all-time greats. If he has the right attitude, nothing can stop him."

Arsenal hope they can begin to bridge the gap between themselves and Chelsea and challenge for the Premiership title once more. The new stadium may increase their spending power, but what they still lack in funds in comparison to their London neighbours they make up for with Wenger's eye for a youthful bargain, and also with that family atmosphere, illustrated by the more experienced players.

Freddie Ljungberg may be only 29 but he is already a father figure for the younger players, as are the likes of Henry, Jens Lehmann and Gilberto Silva. "It's a nice feeling, because we still have a great team," says Ljungberg. "I think it's great that the boss trusts older players and feels like we can bring in experience to help the team develop, and to develop young players. It gives you an inner satisfaction. We've been thrust into lots of big games, so we have that experience.

"All great teams need to have a team spirit, because if you have players who just play for themselves it's very difficult to make a team gel and play a great game. We have quality in this team that not a lot of other teams have. We've got what it takes to win."

"It's a new year and we've got a new stadium," says Fabregas. "With the new players who've come in, of course, the expectation is very high this year. It could be a very good year."

Ljungberg echoed Fabregas's optimism, adding: "If you look back to last season, we had momentum going into the spring and the Champions' League final, and that's what we must take into the new season.

"I hope we've learned from the winter months that sometimes we have to get our foot stuck in. I hope we learn from that, because we're not that good at it. In the winter period we lost a lot of points. If we put that right this time, we can do very well this season."