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Last Updated: Friday, 23 February 2007, 07:39 GMT
Keown backs classy kids to shine
By Charlie Henderson

Johan Djourou celebrates with a host of Arsenal's young stars, including Justin Hoyte, Cesc Fabregas and Theo Walcott
Normally you talk about there being one or two coming through at a club, but there are so many at Arsenal

Martin Keown
Martin Keown has backed Arsene Wenger's decision to field as many youngsters as possible when Arsenal meet Chelsea in the Carling Cup final on Sunday.

"This has been their competition and it has been about their development," former Gunner Keown told BBC Sport.

"They've acquitted themselves well against good teams and this is just the next step - they deserve to play.

"Chelsea are a different proposition, but I'm sure there's enough in the locker with these young players."

Back in October when Arsenal began their run to the final in Cardiff, Wenger sent out a team with an average age of 21 years and nine months in the outfield 10.

606 VIEW
Owen P - BBC Sport
Since then his so-called "Young Guns", imbued with a sprinkling of experience here and there in the guise of Kolo Toure or Gilberto Silva, have seen off Everton, Liverpool and Tottenham.

And manager Wenger wants them to experience the occasion of a big final.

"I will try to find the right mix between youth and experience but I want to reward those who have worked so hard to get us there," the Frenchman has said.

"They are the best young group I've had at Arsenal. Why should they suddenly have a complex because they're playing Chelsea?"

West Brom 0-2 Arsenal
Everton 0-1 Arsenal
Liverpool 3-6 Arsenal
Tottenham 2-2 Arsenal
Arsenal 3-1 Tottenham
Top scorers: Julio Baptista (6), Jeremie Aliadiere (4) & Emmanuel Adebayor (2)

The Gunners have blooded teenage trio Theo Walcott, Denilson and Armand Traore in the competition, while the likes of Abou Diaby, Johan Djourou and Alex Song, who have also featured, have only recently turned 20.

And then of course there is Cesc Fabregas, who is still only 19 and the fulcrum of the first team.

Keown, who spent 13 years at Highbury over two spells, salutes the efforts of his former boss.

"All credit to the club and the manager in instilling such tremendous belief in these young players by bringing them in early," he added.

"If you look at the development of the young players through the season, getting to a major final is the icing on the cake for them.

"Normally you talk about there being one or two players coming through at a club, but there are so many at Arsenal at the moment.

Theo Walcott's at the perfect club - Arsene Wenger's a proven master and he is in good hands

Martin Keown

"I broke into the first team as a 19-year-old and I remember the likes of Kenny Sansom and Viv Anderson, big-name players you'd watched on the telly, saying nice things about me and making me feel 10ft tall.

"It's important to give young players as much confidence as you can and the environment the manager creates for them today is perfect, he instills tremendous belief.

"Chelsea have an array of big-name players with lots to prove and will desperately want to win this game to emphasise their domestic dominance in recent years.

"But Arsenal are playing with a lot of pride, the youngsters will have no fear and they must be buzzing."

Martin Keown
Verdict on the "Young Guns"
By Martin Keown
Former Arsenal defensive stalwart (1984-86 & 1993-2004) and Gunners coaching assistant (2005/06)

Age: 19
Position: Midfield
Carling Cup appearances: Five
He has perhaps impressed me the most as he was the last one in, arriving in the summer from Brazil, and made an almost immediate impact. He clearly has a good technique, is not dissimilar to Fabregas, looks like a great competitor - a winner - and he shone in the semi-finals against Spurs.

Theo Walcott
Theo Walcott
Age: 17
Position: Forward
Carling Cup appearances: Five
Having worked with him I can vouch for his pace, it is phenomenal. There is tremendous pressure on him and it's hard to work out his best position, he seems bolted on that wing. Once he becomes less inhibited and develops he won't be far off being a Michael Owen type down the middle.

Armand Traore
Armand Traore
Age: 17
Position: Left-back
Carling Cup appearances: Five (Four starts)
Gael Clichy, who is great to work with and an energetic tiger on the pitch, is only 21 but Traore will soon be putting him under pressure. Another to come over from France and impress straight away, he is excellent going forward, is quick and strong and has the right qualities to go on.

Abou Diaby
Abou Diaby
Age: 20
Position: Midfield
Carling Cup appearances: Three (Two starts)
He has shown excellent professionalism and dedication in working hard behind the scenes to get fit after a horrendous injury at Sunderland at the end of last season. Is often put in the same bracket as Patrick Vieira and it is not hard to see why. He has the makings of a top-class player.

Johan Djourou
Johan Djourou
Age: 20
Position: Defence - centre-back or right-back
Carling Cup appearances: Three
He doesn't get the credit he deserves. Having started off in midfield at the club he has not looked out of place since dropping back into the defence. He is strong and physical, can play in a number of positions and central defence is now a department of the team that looks strong.

Alex Song
Alex Song
Age: 20
Position: Midfield
Carling Cup appearances: Three
Going out on loan to Charlton will be a good thing for him, but if he had stayed he could have played in this match. The club rate him highly. He sits deep, senses danger, reads the game well and is never frightened of receiving the ball. Now he can show his quality regularly out on loan.

And the rest...

In terms of education this is a top class and others have stood out in the Carling Cup, particularly Jeremie Aliadiere who has started every match and deserves a place in the final.

At 23 he's a late maturer, but he showed flashes of real brilliance when he arrived as a 16-year-old and the trust the manager has placed in him has proved worthwhile. He's sharp, quick and makes clever runs.

Five: Jeremie Aliadiere, Manuel Almunia, Denilson, Armand Traore & Theo Walcott
Four: Philippe Senderos
Three: Emmanuel Adebayor, Abou Diaby, Johan Djourou, Cesc Fabregas, Mathieu Flamini, Justin Hoyte, Alex Song & Kolo Toure
Two: Julio Baptista, Gael Clichy, Matthew Connolly & Mark Randall
One: Emmanuel Eboue, Alexander Hleb, Mart Poom, Tomas Rosicky & Gilberto Silva

In defence Justin Hoyte and Gael Clichy have used this competition as a springboard to bigger roles in the first team.

Hoyte looks as if he has arrived at the top level now. He has always been an excellent defender but he goes forward with more purpose now and it is pleasing to see somebody develop like he has.

While on the opposite flank Clichy is wonderful to work with - his attitude is a breath of fresh air - and he has a great future at the club and is.

Although he may be a bit older than the rest, Julio Baptista has made big headlines with his Carling Cup goals.

Having met him a few times he comes across as a nice chap, like fellow Brazilian Gilberto Silva. He gives the team something different as a link between midfield and attack and could play another big part in this competition at the weekend.

All these players dovetail so well with the so-called first-team, playing a passing game that is easy on the eye.

And I have got this far without even mentioning Cesc Fabregas. He is as young as the others and his development is astonishing. He is a great lad to work with and has become a leader.

It is early days for a few of them, but they are showing all the right signs and I'm sure there will be big futures for a lot of them.

You're not long a kid in football and you have to enjoy those years when you're given the benefit of the doubt. Very quickly you'll have to grow.

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