Arsenal has a new team to go with new stadium
Arsenal are about to open their new 60,000-seat stadium, and manager Arsene Wenger has built a team to go with it.
Led by 18-year-old Spanish midfielder Cesc Fabregas, the new Gunners mauled Juventus 2-0 with intricate, one-touch passing, stout defending and boundless energy in the first leg of their Champions League quarterfinal.
"Another side was born and is growing slowly," Wenger said. "We have chosen the type of player who can play this way. Once you choose the player for the football you want to play, you stick with it."
Fabregas scored the first goal late in the first half at Highbury on Tuesday night. He set up the second in the 69th minute, driving down the right and getting 'keeper Gianluigi Buffon to commit before crossing the ball for Thierry Henry to score.
"Fabregas in the last two or three months has made the big step forward," Wenger said. "He's such a young boy that you feel from month to month he can only improve."
Almost every English newspaper carried the same headline on Wednesday: "Absolutely FAB-regas."
Italy's top sports newspaper La Gazzetta dello Sport had another slant.
"Fabregas outshines the master," it said, referring to how the youngster outplayed former Arsenal captain Patrick Vieira in his return to Highbury after a $20 million summer transfer to Juve.
Vieira looked tired, which also summed up the way Juventus — known as the "Old Lady" in Italian soccer — played against Arsenal. The Frenchman also picked up a yellow card and will be suspended for the second leg next week in Turin.
"My target was not to justify selling Patrick Vieira," Wenger said. "He was a tremendous player and you never lose a player like Patrick without suffering a bit."
Juventus finished with nine men after having two players sent off in the late stages. Gazzetta said Juve needs a "miracle" to make the semifinals.
Even though the Gunners lag 28 points behind first-place Chelsea in the Premier League, Wenger suddenly has people talking about Arsenal as the future of English soccer.
Chelsea, Manchester United and Liverpool are out of the Champions League, and Arsenal is on the verge of reaching the semifinals of Europe's most prestigious club tournament for the first time.
"I rate our chances of getting into the semifinal as 50-50," Wenger said, downplaying Arsenal's chances. "But there's a long way to go before we can win the tournament."
Along with Fabregas, there are several other young players to watch at Arsenal as Wenger reshapes the squad he took over almost 10 years ago: (22-year-old striker Robin van Persie, 21-year-old midfielder Mathieu Flamini, 21-year-old defender Philippe Senderos, 22-year-old defender Emmanuel Eboue, 22-year-old striker Jose Antonio Reyes).
Not an Englishman among them, they all play Wenger's artful passing game — similar to Barcelona's.
Not surprisingly, Fabregas grew up near Barcelona and made his first international appearance with Spain three weeks ago in a 3-2 victory over the Ivory Coast.
The Gunners can also defend. Arsenal have set a Champions League record, going seven games and 649 minutes without yielding a goal.
Ironically, the sudden turnover at Arsenal may signal even more changes before the Gunners move into their $635 million Emirates Stadium next season.
In fact, Wenger and Henry could be among the next to go. Wenger is one of seven coaches named by Real Madrid president Fernando Martin as a candidate to take over the giant Spanish club. And Henry has been linked with a move next season to Barcelona or Real Madrid.
In addition to winning praise, Wenger's success has also drawn critics.
He didn't play a single Englishman in the Juventus victory — defender Sol Campbell and Ashley Cole are injured. It was the same lineup he used in ousting Real Madrid in the previous round.
"It (Arsenal) is an English club but not an English success," West Ham manager Alan Pardew said recently. "It's probably a greater reflection of youngsters from France and elsewhere in Europe."
In an interview published on Wednesday, he toned down slightly — but not much.
"We must produce better English players and then promote them," Pardew said. "I'm not the only one with that view. I'm just the one who said it. People are speaking about it ... but naturally the bigger clubs are against that because it will weaken their teams." None more than Arsenal.