ARSENAL YOUTH COME OF AGE
Arsène Wenger’s young guns on the verge of making European pipe dream a reality
THERE was much talk around the Emirates before kick-off on Wednesday night that this might be the season for Arsenal in Europe.
At one point, late in this Champions League tie, Arsenal almost achieved what for Arsène Wenger has long appeared to be the ultimate in footballing possibility: after a scintillating passing move, they almost walked the ball into the net.
Substitute Aaron Ramsey was foiled only by a desperate scramble by the AZ goalkeeper Sergio Romero from applying the finishing touch.
It was that sort of night at the Emirates. The kind of occasion which suggested that the talk in the pubs of the Holloway Road before kick-off, that this might be the season for Arsenal in Europe, was not so intemperate after all.
Indeed, after 73 minutes, having seen Samir Nasri, Abou Diaby and Cesc Fabregas (twice) score delightful goals, Arsenal really did look like European champions in waiting, full of irresistible passing and coruscating movement.
But Arsenal will surely face tougher opposition in the Champions League than that offered by a Dutch team who seemingly had an aesthetic distaste for the tackle.
This was precisely the kind of game that Wenger loves.
No four-square Bolton-esque defenders roughing up his forwards, no Darren Fletcher niggling his midfield, just the opportunity for his players to be endlessly expressive.
The front four of Nasri, Fabregas, Andrei Arshavin and Robin van Persie could hardly believe their luck as they were given the chance to exhibit their full repertoire of flicks and runs.
But it was not his glittering quartet that Wenger had been talking up before kick-off. He was keen to tell everyone what a prospect he had playing at left-back.
He went so far as to say England manager Fabio Capello should be delighted that an injury to Gaël Clichy had opened up the chance for an extended run for Kieran Gibbs. It is fair to say England’s wellbeing has not always been the Arsenal manager’s priority.
But such is the enfeebled condi- tion of English representation at Arsenal, the very fact Gibbs has made his way through the multinational ranks meant that his appear- ance on the team-sheet here was being talked about as a presage to him securing a berth on the plane to South Africa.
It is not the most preposterous idea.
Not when the competition to be Ashley Cole’s understudy mainly consists of Wayne Bridge. As it happens, the 20 year-old from Lambeth never looked out of place on the left of Arsenal’s defence.
Wenger says he reminds him of the young Cole. He has a point. Athletic, quick, brought up to value possession, he would have thrilled Capello.
Particularly in the 70th minute, when he slipped across the face of the AZ area and slammed in a shot which only just missed. Plus – and this will have pleased the Italian even more – in one delightful sliding tackle on AZ’s Moussa Dembele – he demonstrated he knows how to defend.
But this was not a match in which a left-back was the principal attraction. This was a game in which Wenger’s insistence on the primacy of the pass was given ample exposure.
At times Van Persie, Fabregas and Arshavin were so supremely confident in their movement and anticipation, the noise coming from the Emirates stands was close to purring.
So easy was it for Wenger he removed all three from the fray with 10 minutes left, conserving their wiles for the challenges ahead. He will need them fresh as it can only get harder.
His Arsenal might even face an opposition.
But for now the pipe dream spinning round the Emirates looks almost plausible. – The Telegraph
WENGER BOYS: Arsenal’s Samir Nasri, centre, celebrates his goal against AZ Alkmaar with Robin Van Persie, left, and Emmanuel Eboue during their Uefa Champions League soccer match while right, Arsene Wenger instructs his team with his usual calm aplomb.