ARSENE WENGER concedes he is taking something of a gamble by bringing a youthful squad to Athens – but the Gunners manager is convinced his young charges can deliver a big performance against Olympiakos.
With safe passage into the Champions League knockout stages secure as Group H winners, Wenger will not risk the fitness of any more first-team regulars ahead of Sunday’s crucial Barclays Premier League encounter at Liverpool.
Captain Cesc Fabregas, defenders William Gallas and Thomas Vermaelen and Russian playmaker Andrey Arshavin all remained in London, while Czech Republic winger Tomas Rosicky is set for around a month out with a groin problem.
As a result, the Arsenal squad in Greece contains 10 teenagers, with an average age of 20.
England forward Theo Walcott is in the squad after recovering from a hamstring problem, while Alex Song returns after missing Saturday’s win over Stoke through suspension.
Mikael Silvestre will add an experienced head, while goalkeeper Lukasz Fabianski, Wales international Aaron Ramsey, England U-21 midfielder Jack Wilshere and Mexico striker Carlos Vela have all played in Europe’s elite competition before.
With the Liverpool showdown approaching, Wenger insists his first-choice stars need to recover.
“I am happy that we absolutely do not have to win this game,” he said.
“All of the players that I have left have little knocks and need a rest, so I travel with a very young team.
“We have Walcott who is coming back from injury, and Song who was suspended against Stoke, so we should have a good mixture between young and experienced players.
“It is a risk, because you know that if you do not win the game, you will be criticised,” he added. “But I trust these players to do well. They are young, but have a lot of experience already of big games and it will be another chance for them to show how good they are.”
Olympiakos, coached by Brazil legend Zico, are unbeaten and top the Greek Super League. A draw would be enough to see the Greeks – who lost 2-0 at the Emirates in September – to the last 16 ahead of Standard Liege.
Meanwhile Wenger maintains Andrey Arshavin is an “example for everybody” in his approach to the game as the Russian football union launch an investigation into reports of inappropriate behaviour during the World Cup play-offs.
The Russians, coached by former Chelsea boss Guus Hiddink, suffered a shock defeat to Slovenia as their bid to reach next summer’s finals in South Africa came to an end last month.
Following a report claiming players had partied into the early hours ahead of the qualification play-off first leg in Moscow, there is to be an inquiry by the Russian football authorities.
Wenger, however, insists Russia playmaker Arshavin is a model pro.
“He is a serious player and I have no doubt about his fitness at all,” the Arsenal manager said. “I do not believe a word of what I hear, not at all.”
“From what I see, how he prepares, he is an example for everybody.”
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