Wiltord helps to guide Arsenal's youth

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The Independent Football

Arsene Wenger thanked Sylvain Wiltord for helping to guide a young Arsenal side to a tense penalty shoot-out victory against the First Division side Rotherham in the third round of the Carling Cup at Highbury on Tuesday night.

"I didn't want to play a completely young team so I wanted four or five experienced players who could help and guide them - and that is what Sylvain and the other players did," Wenger said.

The Arsenal manager, who also used Kanu, Edu and Pascal Cygan, may have rested all of the starting line-up from last Sunday's Premiership game at Charlton, but he was delighted at the experience gained by what was effectively a reserve side. "Certainly, at the end of the game, it was the youngest side that has ever played for Arsenal in an official competition, so I'm happy that the boys got some good experience," he said.

"Some of them got the taste of what it's like to play in senior football and it's interesting to go through and give them another chance to play.

"The younger players did very well. By the end, even the more experienced players got caught up in the intensity of the game. You can't replicate that kind of experience, that's why it would have been sad to go out. I feel sorry for Rotherham as they gave absolutely everything until the last minute and had a fantastic spirit."

Wiltord was one of only a handful of experienced figures in an Arsenal team featuring seven players making their debuts, including two 16-year-olds, either from the start or as substitutes.

Wenger's side were certainly given a major test of their character, with Rotherham battling back to level the match 1-1 after conceding a 12th-minute goal to the lively Jeremie Aliadière.

With just 35 seconds of normal time remaining, Darren Byfield, who had previously been denied on three separate occasions by the Arsenal goalkeeper, Graham Stack, finally made the breakthrough for the First Division side.

Having forced extra time, they even survived the dismissal of their goalkeeper, Mike Pollitt, for handling outside his area to ensure a shoot-out. The substitute goalkeeper, Gary Montgomery, was then almost his side's unlikely hero, saving two penalties and also scoring one.

However, John Mullin hit the post and Byfield struck the bar to let Arsenal off the hook. When all 10 Rotherham players had taken their kicks with the score tied at 8-8, Chris Swailes stepped up to start all over again.

This time around, his shot was saved by Stack, allowing Wiltord, whose first penalty was turned away by Montgomery, to seal Arsenal's shoot-out victory 9-8.

Pollitt, the Rotherham goalkeeper, was still protesting his innocence after the game, although television replays suggested that he had, indeed, handled the ball outside his area when the substitute Quincy Owusu-Abeyie lobbed him.

With Pollitt having been recently sent off in similar circumstances against Crystal Palace, the Rotherham manager, Ronnie Moore, will have to review this latest incident before deciding upon his response. "He is swearing blind that the ball struck him on the head," said Moore. "It was another tough decision for us but I will have to see a replay."

Moore was justifiably proud of his side. "I was fearful coming here after being mauled at Blackburn in the competition last season," he admitted. "The pace and ability of these players, even the younger ones, is frightening.

"But we held our own and although winning would have been the icing on the cake, all of the players were magnificent. It was just that the fates weren't with us."