Wenger kids move from sideshow to centre stage

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The Independent Football

Arsene Wenger's young generation of foreign recruits began the season as an absorbing sideshow to his invincible Premiership champions but, as Arsenal face a crucial FA Cup quarter-final tie with Bolton today, the manager has admitted that they will form an important part of the club's future. The debate over transfer resources in the wake of defeat to Bayern Munich in the Champions' League on Wednesday, has forced Wenger to concede once again that his club will have to rely on youth.

The Frenchman appeared a good deal more serene about the club's financial plight than his countryman and striker Thierry Henry who, despite being out of action for the next three weeks, held an impromptu press conference to refute reports that he had criticised the club's board. While Henry was at pains to say that he had not blamed the club for investing in a new stadium at the expense of signing players, Wenger admitted that he had developed the club's younger players precisely because of that reason.

"At the moment I feel that the positive part of our season is that we have young players who will be important for us in the future," Wenger said. "They lack experience at the top, that's true, but that's a positive side of our season. I think we have to be grateful for what we created. We prepared these young players because we knew that we would not have the same financial potential and we have to keep doing that.

"It is harder because in the transfer market Chelsea are super-powerful. It's also harder because all clubs are well organised in their scouting systems now and it is much more difficult to get good young players. But we still have a lot who want to join us because we have a special attraction to younger players."

The £357m project at Ashburton Grove has long been a central part of Wenger's commitment to sign up with Arsenal until 2008 and he stressed again that the club's redevelopment of their training ground and stadium are worth all the more for the conditions in which they have been achieved.

"The danger for clubs is to be at the top level and then disappear," he said. "But it has not been the case here at all. Not only are we in a healthy financial situation but we have built a new training ground and stadium and competed at the same level. For a while if we cannot compete in the transfer market we have to accept that. I knew what it would be like when we made the decision to build the stadium and that is why we prepared the young players."

The FA Cup tie with Bolton was, Wenger admitted reluctantly, the "last-chance saloon" for his players to win a trophy this year although he defended his policy of not adding to the squad during the summer. With Sol Campbell, Edu and Henry all missing today, and Gilberto Silva still not fit, Wenger said that he had searched the transfer market but found "no obvious candidate" to strengthen the squad.

"If we don't win the trophy it will certainly not be remembered as a great season but is it the worst season, I don't know," Wenger said. "It has certainly been the season in which the expectation level has been higher than ever and therefore the difference between the expectation and reality has been the biggest."

The FA Cup will be no less frivolous a competition for Manchester United when they visit Southampton today with Ruud van Nistelrooy likely to remain in the side to improve his fitness. While Sir Alex Ferguson has also promised that his club's future is safe with the next generation of young Manchester United players, defeat to Milan in the Champions' League on Tuesday has caused the focus to shift to his senior players.

"In the past people have said we need certain players but I can't see a player at the moment that would come into the squad and improve it," said senior player Phil Neville. "We have to accept we were beaten in Europe and get on with it. It's probably true, we've probably under achieved in terms of the knockout stages [in the Champions' League].

"In terms of getting to the knockout stages we're one of the most consistent sides in Europe but when it comes to the crunch we've consistently slipped up over the years. Not through being beaten by a better team - it's probably through naivete, lack of experience or sometimes not learning from our mistakes. Eventually that will have to change."