Arsenal will go into tonight's vital Champions' League tie against Rosenborg with a 17-year-old and a 20-year-old paired in central midfield and with their inexperienced reserve goalkeeper elevated to first choice for only the second time this season. The manager, Arsène Wenger, also indicated that all three will play in this weekend's Premiership meeting with Chelsea.
The first of the decisions - to field Cesc Fabregas and Mathieu Flamini - has been thrust upon Wenger by injury and suspension with Patrick Vieira, Edu and Gilberto Silva all missing. None will return for Sunday's game. However, he confirmed yesterday that Manuel Almunia will retain his place in goal in preference to Jens Lehmann, who is dropped.
Wenger said he had "never" gone into such an important match - Arsenal have to beat the Norwegian champions to be certain of passage into the knock-out stages - with such an inexperienced midfield. In addition, he will play 20-year-old Justin Hoyte at right back in place of the suspended Lauren and with Pascal Cygan injured.
There was some positive news for Arsenal with the defender Sol Campbell indicating yesterday that, with his current deal expiring this season, he has agreed to sign a new contract. The 30-year-old said: "It's all agreed. There are just a few things left to sort out. It's just the legal technicalities."
However, it is Wenger's decision to replace Lehmann with Almunia which will be of greatest debate. The 35-year-old German was rested for last week's League Cup tie against Manchester United and though Almunia was at fault for the winning goal he kept his place for Saturday's Premiership victory over Birmingham City. But in that match he let Clinton Morrison's shot squirm through him and looked far from convincing.
"For me it was not a big mistake," Wenger said of the goal at Old Trafford. "It was a mistake of course because you do not want your keepers to let goals in like that but you have to put that into perspective." He said that 27-year-old Almunia, who arrived in the summer for £500,000 from Celta Vigo, where he was often loaned out, was "signed to challenge the keeper".
Lehmann finally lost his place after 53 consecutive Premiership appearances because Wenger believes his sharpness has dulled in recent matches. "I don't want to come out with the reasons for my decision," Wenger said yesterday. He had talked with Lehmann about it. "You can speak and speak and speak but at the end of the day your team wins or loses," Wenger added. Almunia, he said, would be given his chance. "You don't think I would take a keeper out for one game - I don't do that. I will give him a run of games."
Lehmann said he was "surprised at the decision". "I don't know yet how I'm going to take it," he added. The goalkeeper has been guilty of a series of errors - often in high-profile European games such as the recent away tie with Panathinaikos - since replacing David Seaman at the beginning of last season. "I knew all along that if you have two or three bad games in the Premiership, you're out," Lehmann said. "But except for my mistake in Athens, I haven't had anything to blame myself for." It appears he is the fall guy for Arsenal's disappointing form.
Wenger, who has taken on a week-long trial Knut Borch, a 24-year-old goalkeeper from the Norwegian club Tromso, is understood to be keen to buy another goalkeeper in the transfer window. His undoubted interest in Chelsea's Carlo Cudicini is unlikely to be encouraged, however, despite the Italian being second choice to Petr Cech. Chelsea will not sell to Arsenal, for a start.
Of more immediate concern to Wenger is tonight's match. He will be relieved to face opponents whose domestic season finished weeks ago and who have not won a Champions' League group game for three years, or five years away from home. However, Rosenborg, who cannot qualify, have little to lose and their players want to impress a new management team which includes the legendary former coach Nils Arne Eggen, who is committed to attack, especially with a number of injuries in defence.
That may play into Arsenal's hands - even if Rosenborg's forceful tactics caused problems during the tie in Norway - and Wenger said he was confident that both Fabregas and Flamini would cope. "They are both mentally strong, will put the work-rate in that is needed at that level and can compete and achieve what is required," he said.
With 15 games for Arsenal, Fabregas has already proved himself, Wenger added. Although three years older, Flamini is less experienced - even if he played in Marseilles' run to last season's Uefa Cup final. "He has a little experience but what people forget is that he was born in 1984 and is just 20," Wenger said of a player yet to start a Premiership match. "He is not the finished article for a central midfielder but he looks to be strong mentally."
Wenger said that he had not "considered" the consequences of not qualifying, which would - not least financially - be a heavy blow. A victory tonight and he will not have to.
Arsenal (probable: 4-4-2): Almunia; Hoyte, Campbell, Touré, Cole; Ljungberg, Flamini, Fabregas, Pires; Bergkamp, Henry.
Rosenborg (probable 4-3-3): E Johnsen; Russell, Hoftun, Hansen, Dorsin; Strand, Solli, Winsnes; Braaten, F Johnsen, Storflor.
Referee: S Farina (Italy).Reuse content