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Saturday, Dec. 22, 2007


Wenger's young Gunners in fine form during Carling Cup

LONDON — Arsenal not only has the best first team in the Premier League, but it's second XI is also capable of beating England's finest.

Christopher Davies

For the third consecutive season, Arsene Wenger's shadow side — average age 20 years and 9 months — has reached the Carling Cup semifinals after a 3-2 extra-time win at Blackburn on Tuesday.

Not one of the young Gunners who won at Ewood Park started last Sunday's 1-0 Premier League defeat of Chelsea. Second team perhaps — first class definitely with half the kids who triumphed at Blackburn already full internationals.

Wenger will continue his two-teams policy for the two-leg semifinal against Tottenham next month.

"I believe in the young players and I believe we can win it," said the Frenchman, whose second XI was beaten in last year's final by Chelsea's senior side.

Arsenal's Carling Cup team would not stand up to the physical demands of the Premier League on a weekly basis to challenge for the title but the suspicion is it would finish comfortably mid-table. How the Premier League's lesser lights must envy the riches Wenger has at his disposal.

The next generation of Gunners played some breathtaking attacking football in the first half-hour at Blackburn, where the home team barely saw the ball. Their passing and movement belied their inexperience and Wenger looked on like a proud headmaster.

Arsenal plays Tottenham in the Premier League Saturday, but the game will have no bearing on the Carling Cup clashes.

Both sides will play their first teams but in the Cup meeting Tottenham's strongest team will face Arsenal's kids. Boys against men perhaps but the boys came out on top when the clubs met at the same stage of the competition last season.

Chelsea plays Everton in the other semifinal.

* * * * *

PORTSMOUTH defender Sol Campbell complained earlier this week about the level of abuse players receive. Campbell, who is black, was not talking about racist remarks but how home crowds react when players who have left their club return.

Foul language cannot be condoned, but players can hardly expect a standing ovation when they have asked to leave the club closest to supporters' hearts. Ashley Cole was given the hardest of times by Arsenal fans when he played at Emirates Stadium for Chelsea last Sunday, but given the negative comments he made about the Gunners when he left — plus having illegal talks with the Blues for which he was fined by the Premier League — what else did he expect? The Arsenal faithful to forgive and forget?

Former Arsenal and Tottenham defender Campbell was abused by Spurs fans last weekend but believes things have gone too far. "I think it is out of hand now," he said. "We all can take the booing and light banter but when it gets to the realms of verbal abuse it's a bridge too far.

"I think the Football Association, the Professional Footballers' Association and even the Government should get involved because these situations are happening at sporting arenas. If this happened in the street, you'd be arrested."

A weakness in Campbell's argument is that players would also be arrested if they used the sort of language they do to match officials in the street. Referees are sworn at and have their integrity questioned by players on a regular basis but the Football Association is too weak-livered to clamp down on this.

* * * * *

A MANCHESTER UNITED fringe player was arrested on suspicion of rape after a complaint by a 26-year-old female following the players' Christmas party at a city center hotel.

It is not for this column to comment on what may or may not have happened, but such a party was a controversy waiting to happen. There have been so many similar stories in the wake of footballers' parties that it is staggering Sir Alex Ferguson gave his blessing for the lads night out.

In the ideal world footballers, like the rest of us, should be able to enjoy Christmas festivities. The difference is Premier League stars can attract the wrong type of admirers, who see a footballer as a quick buck.

While not suggesting the woman's complaint is not genuine, there have been so many tales of alleged assaults, rowdiness and goodness knows what after footballers' parties that you wonder why they continue to put themselves at risk in such a way.

There is also something so obviously wrong with a system that allows — encourages — male suspects to be named before they are even charged. The United youngster arrested was named and while the police continually deny they release such details to the media their words fall on the deafest of ears.

Until the United teenager — or anyone under similar circumstances — is charged he should surely be entitled to the same legal anonymity as the female. The government says that vindication comes with acquittal — try telling that to someone whose name has been front-page news but subsequently wither not charged or found guilty.

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