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Saturday, April 1, 2006

PREMIER REPORT

Play of young Guns illustrates Wenger's eye for talent


LONDON -- We should have known better than to question Arsene Wenger's judgment.

Christopher Davies

As Arsenal struggled to find domestic consistency amid its progress in the Champions League during the autumn and winter, accusing fingers were pointed at the manager for his decision to allow Patrick Vieira to move to Juventus last summer.

Arsenal's midfield stuttered, with Cesc Fabregas and Mathieu Flamini too often looking like lost boys in a sea of Premiership experience. The Gunners were missing the physical presence of Vieira, his leadership and inspiration.

"I have faith in the young players," Wenger said and the media, which always knows best of course, reported his words while shaking collective heads. Well, he would say that wouldn't he, we reasoned.

Then Arsenal went to Real Madrid and beat the most successful side in the history of the European Cup 1-0 -- the performance of Cesc Fabregas would have justified Spanish requests to UEFA to check the midfielder's DNA. How could a player, not 19 until May, play with such assurance, confidence and mobility given that he's almost young enough to be Zinedine Zidane's son?

Two years ago, Fabregas was snaffled from Barcelona by Wenger on a free transfer -- at least Dick Turpin wore a mask.

The teenager from Catalonia would have enjoyed Arsenal's win over Barcelona's rival more than any other Gunner and the laptop brigade in the press box started to wonder if Wenger did actually know what he was doing when he sold Vieira.

There was further evidence in the display by Fabregas last Tuesday when Viera and Juventus came to Highbury that, yes, Wenger was right after all with replacing Viera with Fabregas.

The pupil outshone the former master of Highbury to an extent that even the Italian media congratulated Wenger on a fine piece of business -- getting £13.7 million for a 29-year-old who appears to have lost his place among Europe's elite midfielders. It was not transfer suicide as most have believed.

Vieira was at Highbury for nine glorious years and Arsenal still made £10.2 million on the player it bought from AC Milan for £3.5 million.

Fabregas will never have the intimidating presence of Vieira as he is 7 inches (18 cm) shorter than the Frenchman, but as the season progresses it is obvious that the Spaniard is ready, willing and able to assume his former captain's place as Arsenal's heartbeat in midfield.

Despite our earlier unfounded doubts, Wenger has found a gem to replace the jewel that was Vieira, whose miserable return to Highbury was compounded by a caution that rules him out of next Wednesday's return match in Turin.

"You don't have many players like that at his age," said Thierry Henry, the Arsenal captain. "You have Wayne Rooney, Patrick Vieira and Ronaldinho when they were young, and I hope for Cesc he has the same career. He is already an old head in a young body. You can see that by the way he plays, which is a huge plus."

If Fabregas -- his nickname Fab is tailor-made for headlines -- has grabbed the spotlight in recent weeks, Flamini has justifiable claims for similar praise. The midfielder has been an emergency left-back in the wake of injuries to Ashley Cole and Gael Clichy, and while it was considered a gamble by Wenger to move the midfielder to an unaccustomed role, maybe we should give the Frenchman credit and say it was astute management.

As a midfielder, defending was not Flamini's specialty yet he has faced some of Europe's finest right-sided attackers -- David Beckham and Steven Gerrard included -- and has won his personal battle each time.

The biggest compliment that can be paid to Flamini is that he does not look like a midfielder playing left-back and it will be interesting to see what Wenger does when Cole is fit again.

Fabregas is taking his new found status in his stride.

"I just work hard in training every day and do my best," he said. "It was a big decision to leave Barca but one I am glad I made. People here believed in me so it's great. We have won games in the last few weeks and it reflects well on a player individually, but that's not fair. It's the team."

Full of talent but bereft of ego -- a wonderful combination.

The other revelation of 2006 has been right-back Emmanuel Eboue who typifies his manager's love of pace and power. Signed in 2004 from Belgian club Beveren for £1.5 million, Eboue has been learning his Arsenal trade mainly in the reserves. A long-term injury to Lauren gave Eboue his chance and he has improved almost with every game -- like central defender Kolo Toure he is a Cote d'Ivoire international and another player who could catch the eye on football's biggest stage.

Wenger's eye for young talent is unsurpassed. Apart from picking up Vieira from AC Milan and Thierry Henry from the Juventus wilderness and turning them into world-class stars, the current team contains five bargain buys who have become established first-teamers.

Philippe Senderos will cost a maximum of £2.5 million from Servette, Toure a giveaway £150,000 from ASEC Mimosas, so with Fabregas (free), Flamini (£260,000) from Marseille and Eboue, Wenger has spent less than £5 million on five players whose current value would be many times that figure.

Wenger refused to panic buy during the January transfer window and his confidence in the next generation of Arsenal stars is paying off. While he is too experienced to take anything for granted, Wenger can be confident of completing the Champions League knockout of Juventus next Wednesday.

Awaiting the Gunners in the semifinals will be either Inter Milan or Villarreal -- the Italians beat the Spaniards 2-1 in the first leg.

Going to San Siro will not fill Arsenal with trepidation either -- the last time it played Inter in Milan in the Champions League three years ago, the Gunners won 5-1.

Christopher Davies covers Arsenal, Chelsea and the Republic of Ireland for the London Daily Telegraph.


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