Wenger primes young Gunners for counter-attack next season

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The Independent Football

Arsène Wenger, the Arsenal manager, believes the emergence of the club's youngsters may threaten Chelsea's grip on the Premiership next season.

Wenger has not been afraid to trust his instincts and use players such as Cesc Fabregas, Philippe Senderos and Robin van Persie. Aged just 17, 20 and 21 respectively, with Fabregas turning 18 today, the burgeoning trio are commanding places in the team ahead of the more experienced Edu, Sol Campbell and Dennis Bergkamp - who were all on the bench for Monday's 2-0 victory at West Bromwich Albion.

In recent weeks they have been at the heart of an Arsenal resurgence which has seen the club embark on a 12-match unbeaten run, winning nine of the last 10 games.

The latest triumph at The Hawthorns has restored second-placed Arsenal's four-point lead over Manchester United, and with three matches remaining they are hot favourites to finish as runners-up, which comes with the guarantee of Champions' League football for next season.

A number of other young players have been given a taste of the limelight this season, including Mathieu Flamini, Quincy Owusu-Abeyie, Gaël Clichy and Arturo Lupoli, who are all eager for more, meaning that Arsenal might just run Chelsea closer next season.

"The youngsters played very well. They are wonderful," Wenger said after Monday's performance. "They've gained a lot of experience."

The likes of Campbell, Bergkamp and Edu are not guaranteed their places, and with the FA Cup final against Manchester United less than three weeks away, there is no certainty they will be recalled for the game.

"That's part of the competition of the team. But if you want your young players to become better then they have to play at some stage," Wenger said.

"At some stage we have to think somebody has to come in for Dennis Bergkamp because he will be 36 this year.

"Is Robin van Persie good enough to come in for him at some stage? You only know that by playing players, and I have been given a few answers."

Van Persie provided one last night with his ninth goal of the season to break Albion's spirit in the 66th minute after the home side had enjoyed the lion's share of the game to that point.

But it is in defence where Arsenal have rediscovered their miserly ways, conceding one goal in their last 11 matches, and that without the influence of Campbell who has only recently returned from a lengthy injury lay-off.

In his place, Senderos has been earning rave reviews and taking the plaudits, much to Wenger's delight as he added: "He is playing well. At the moment Sol needs an opportunity, and if he gets it then he will take it. I'm convinced because he is ready now. But it's very difficult when players are playing well to just push them out, but we have a team spirit, a club spirit.

"For me, Sol is the longer plan for years to come, but at the moment he needs to be a little bit patient, although he behaves in a magnificent way and that is credit to him."

The only negative Wenger can foresee, if Arsenal are to threaten Chelsea next season, is the size of the squad, and finances remain tight because of the financial commitment to the club's new stadium at Ashburton Grove.

"We have a very thin squad of 20 players, with six or seven very young," said Wenger. "But they are competitive, hungry. They want to be successful and to show how good they are, and the mix is good between young and experienced players."