Wenger: why we couldn't stand in Patrick's way

Fabregas leads charge of the young brigade as Vieira prepares for emotional return
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The Independent Football

Playing Real Madrid's jaded aristos at their own wide-open game was one thing, and - it is easily forgotten - a close-run thing too after the breathtakingly exciting goalless draw in the second leg. On Tuesday, the zebras of Juventus arrive at Highbury, simultaneously athletic and disciplined and certain to prove formidable opposition for a young Arsenal side over two matches. Hugely experienced, and with only one league defeat this season, they are favourites to qualify for a Champions' League semi-final against Villarreal or old rivals Internazionale.

Arsène Wenger, Arsenal's manager, while determined not to take his eye off the Premier-ship ball, is a studious enough observer of European football to have formulated some preliminary thoughts about the tie even while preparing for yesterday's trip to Portsmouth. They were optimistic thoughts too, for in overwhelming Fulham and Charlton with the quality of their football on either side of squeezing past Real and Liverpool, Arsenal offered convincing evidence that an awkward, if not ugly, duckling may be turning into a swan.

"We take heart from the fact that we believe we are stronger than two or three months ago," Wenger said. "Youth has its disadvantages but also its advantages. They have no fear and they lose it very quickly when they play in top-level games. When you have a period where you have a doubt about your team, experience suddenly becomes important. When you have no doubts, youth is even better for you."

Thus have Arsenal's coaches and supporters alike drawn some positive conclusions recently to counter the negativity induced by physical batterings at places such as Everton, Blackburn and Bolton. "This team is on the way up," Wenger insisted. "But in our job you cannot waste time. That's why it's important to be in the Champions' League again next season. This team is so young that they could gain three or four years' experience by being in the Champions' League again and that's why I'm highly determined to get back into fourth position."

The decision to sell Patrick Vieira to Fabio Capello's Juve last summer for an irresistible £13.7 million at the same time as the experienced Brazilian Edu was leaving meant an enforced dependence on youth. One fascinating aspect of Tuesday's game will therefore be to ascertain how well Cesc Fabregas, the sorcerer's apprentice (right), stands up to his former master. Another will be whether Vieira is at all affected by the emotional resonance of his return to London in a way that David Beckham appeared to be for Madrid. "Patrick will be highly motivated," Wenger said. "Having the semi-final of the Champions' League at stake is above personal motivations and I've never seen anybody saying, 'Please, you go [first], I'm not motivated'. At that level, you won't count on any lack of motivation in your opponent. You expect him to play at his best and you know the only way to come through is to play at your best. We believe we can turn that little fraction that makes the difference in our favour."

Not for the first time, Wenger found something spun in translation last week, when his generalised comments to a French magazine about players finding it difficult to accept they were finished at a club was applied by an English red-top to Vieira. "I was speaking about players who are 32 and more. His was a different case. He had a superb offer from Juventus for a five-year contract. He had only two years to go with us and we were not in a situation at that time to extend his contract. Can you refuse a guy who has played nine years for you the opportunity to have a five-year contract? I didn't want to do that and tell him at 31 or 32 maybe we cannot extend it."

A central midfield of Vieira and Emerson, the doughty Brazilian, should test Fabregas and Gilberto Silva - who took Emerson's place when he was injured just before the 2002 World Cup - to a degree that Madrid never managed over two legs. "We have an opportunity to show we can compete against a different style of play, and be as efficient," Wenger said.

"We knew against Real Madrid both teams would go for it. This time I believe that Juventus will play in a more restricted way. They will be efficient. They will create maybe two chances and try to take one. They are top of their league so there is no question about their quality, with a good balance between efficiency and domination. They can suck you in."

After demonstrating his almost nerdish knowledge of European football by reeling off the ages of the worldy-wise Juventus team - a quiz competition against Sir Alex Ferguson would be something to behold - Wenger went on to mention a player Ferguson also knows all about: "[Lilian] Thuram is a rock at the heart of the defence. Mentally he is very, very strong and one who never gives up, and had a typical mentality to play in England. I tried many times to buy him and he was close at one time to joining Manchester United. But they will miss [Pavel] Nedved, because he is a player with the highest work-rate in their team."

Nedved is suspended, a fate that Wenger would have wished upon a number of his team-mates, including the strikers Zlatan Ibrahimovic and David Trez-eguet, "the snake, who is very quiet, then suddenly kills you". Arsenal's tactics will be to take the visitors by storm, as they did four years ago when leading 2-0 in half an hour before winning 3-1, and like Liverpool did against the same opposition last April, scoring twice even earlier. With or without any Englishmen in the side - neither Sol Campbell nor Ashley Cole are likely to be fit - the manager wants an English approach: "In England we always start strong. Your fans do not expect you to come out and play cards for half an hour."

Juve and Capello may be favourites, but they do not hold all the aces.

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