Wenger keen to show you can win with these kids

Arsenal heighten pressure on rivals as production line keeps rolling off wonder boys
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The Independent Online

It is a sign of changing times that a match between the second teams - at best - of Manchester United and Arsenal is attracting as much interest as a Premiership visit by Arsène Wenger's team to Liverpool. Both games are live on television in the next four days and the size of audience in either the living room or the stadiums will make for an instructive comparison.

It is a sign of changing times that a match between the second teams - at best - of Manchester United and Arsenal is attracting as much interest as a Premiership visit by Arsène Wenger's team to Liverpool. Both games are live on television in the next four days and the size of audience in either the living room or the stadiums will make for an instructive comparison.

So, from Arsenal's point of view in particular, will the results. Failure to complete a hat-trick of successive victories at Anfield this afternoon against the currently weakened home side would suggest that their recent slip in form was becoming a slide; while knocking United out of the League Cup on their own ground would give a new twist to one of Wenger's most telling little digs at Sir Alex Ferguson - the one about believing you have the prettiest wife. Everyone, he would be able to say of his Colney Cubs, thinks they have the most talented kids.

As for his first team, Wenger feels that a run of five draws in six games (the other one being the extraordinary shoot-out at White Hart Lane) represents a reaction not so much to the Premiership defeat controversially inflicted by United a month ago but to the 49-match stroll that preceded it. "We were like the guy for whom life is easy and discovers suddenly that he has to fight again to come back to a normal level," he said. "It's like on the Tour de France when you cruise and suddenly a mountain comes and you have to climb and you see that cycling is not as easy.

"We aspire to be the best and to play the best football and when we played with less urgency we still won. In such a long period where you're unbeaten things slowly go a little bit, urgency goes away and some details go in the team until you get hit. Then you focus again on what is important to you and we are at that stage. When you don't win for a few games and your backs are to the wall then you have to fight back and show your response."

Satisfaction at taking a point from PSV Eindhoven with nine men last Wednesday could not disguise the fallibility still evident in Arsenal's defence, despite the return of Sol Campbell. In the half-dozen games since Old Trafford, they have conceded at least eight goals from crosses, for which Jens Lehmann has been no more to blame than the men in front of him, four of whom were standing gawping as Andre Ooijer headed PSV in front. It was fortunate that Thierry Henry, one of those guilty of ball-watching, was more alert at the other end of the pitch, and also had one of the games when he matched inspiration with perspiration.

Fortunate too for the London side that Liverpool are so depleted in attack, having suffered the grievous blow of losing Luis Garcia two minutes into their match in Monaco the previous night. Already using Neil Mellor as their lone attacker - and Kenny Dalglish he is not - they soon had four full-backs on the pitch. No Liverpool player has now scored for four European games and the credit being granted to Rafael Benitez (whose Valencia side knocked Arsenal out of the Champions' League two seasons ago) for a series of home wins over moderate opposition is slowly running out.

When Ferguson began the long haul as United manager, he saw his main task as "shifting Liverpool out of the road". Having finished in the top two once since 1991, they may reasonably be said to have been left stalled at the kerbside. Nor do the more pessimistic Kopites, left disillusioned with Gérard Houllier's reign, appear to believe that the Spanish RAC (Rafael And Company) will have them back in the fast lane very soon. "I saw the reserve team play Aston Villa, they looked like a very poor pub team," wrote one correspondent to the Daily Post last week. "We have a long way to go to get anywhere near the top."

In contrast, those watching Arsenal's young reserves believe they are seeing the future - and that it will work. Manchester City's Kevin Keegan and Everton's David Moyes, annoyed as they were with their own much more experienced sides, could only add to the praise after losing 2-1 and 3-1 respectively in earlier League Cup rounds. Everton were outplayed at Highbury in front of almost 28,000 by a side whose outfield players had an average age of 19 years, five months. If there was a downside for some it was that of the 14 players Wenger used that night, precisely three were English: Ryan Smith, the one local lad; Justin Hoyte, a teenaged defender who came on as substitute in Eindhoven; and Jermaine Pennant, snatched from Notts County a week before his 16th birthday and farmed out to Leeds last season to improve his discipline and match-toughness.

The rest have been brought together from far and wide as Arsenal take advantage of European Community regulations, laxer immigration rules in countries like Belgium, and the club's rising reputation, which helped attract someone like Cesc Fabregas at 16 from a team as renowned as Barcelona (to the Catalans' understandable fury). There were cries of "disgrace" and "treachery" respectively when Jérémie Aliadière and Mathieu Flamini were lured from France, but Wenger insists he is only doing the best for his club at the same time as providing as good a football education as young boys will get anywhere: "When you have good youngsters, the future of the club does not ever depend on the financial situation - you can build a new stadium and still have good enough young players to stay in the League. Secondly, we cannot compete with the biggest clubs financially so it is important to produce our own players, and get them before they have a big name."

That process begins at what might seem an absurdly young age. A match programme recently pictured Arsenal team groups at every level down to under-nines, all posing proudly in their sponsored red-and-white kit, identical to the first-team's. As well as the main, superbly equipped Academy in Walthamstow, the club have development centres in Rotherhithe, Croydon and Middlesex and boast: "If a good seven year-old comes to the attention of our Surrey scout, he'll be invited to a development centre."

Ten years later he could be preparing for a League Cup quarter-final at Old Trafford. "It is a big test [on Wednesday] for those who want to become Arsenal players to go there, show that they are not intimidated and are capable of performing under big pressure and against a good side," said Wenger. "We've increased the problems they have to face: first City, then Everton, now Man United. It's another step in their education."

HIGHBURY HOPEFULS: SIX OF THE BEST

Johan Djourou, 17 (Born: Ivory Coast)

Although originally a compatriot of Kolo Touré's, Djourou is a naturalised Swiss, who represented his new country in last summer's European Under-19 Championships. Can play in the centre of defence or midfield.

Danny Karbassiyoon, 20 (United States)

A versatile American who scored on his debut as a midfield substitute at Manchester City, then appeared at left-back in the League Cup win against Everton. Has also played as a striker since arriving from his native Virginia last year.

Sebastian Larsson, 19 (Sweden)

Took on Shaun Wright-Phillips in first-team debut at City while playing left-back for the first time. Normally a midfielder, who will stand out in any position with his long blond hair. On the bench against Panathinaikos.

Arturo Lupoli, 17 (Italy)

Scored a remarkable 45 goals in 21 reserve games last season for Parma, who were therefore furious at losing him last summer. Now leading scorer in Arsenal reserves, and added two more goals on his full debut against Everton.

Quincy Owusu-Abeyie, 18 (Holland)

Dazzling dribbler released by Ajax two years ago after a series of disciplinary problems. Once scored six in an Under-17 game against Wolves. Lit up the Everton game after coming on as a wide midfielder in place of local boy Ryan Smith.

Philippe Senderos, 19 (Switzerland)

The 6ft 3in defender arrived from Servette last year with a reputation to match his size, but was handicapped by a series of injuries. Looked to be trying a little too hard against Everton but is still highly regarded.

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