Wenger challenges Arsenal teenagers to grab their chance
It was late last night when Arsenal finally set foot on the unfamiliar turf of Belarus, often described as the last dictatorship in Europe, one that has seen better days under the enigmatic autocrat who has been in power for more than two decades.
Arsenal will be strong favourites to beat Bate Borisov in tonight's Europa League pool match.
Of course, Arsene Wenger is a benign sort of autocrat and, to prove it, he has omitted most of his best players. Mesut Ozil, Alexis Sanchez, Alexandre Lacazette, Laurent Koscielny and Petr Cech are among those who will be watching on television. Teenage winger Reiss Nelson and midfielder Ashley Maitland-Niles are in line for a start.
Arsenal should still have more than enough, with Per Mertesacker, Theo Walcott and Olivier Giroud giving the side an experienced core. But not for nothing are Bate champions of Belarus 11 seasons running.
Bayern Munich, Roma and Athletic Bilbao have all tasted defeat here and, if Arsenal want to avoid a similar fate in the hostile Borisov Arena, then their young players will need to make an instant impression.
Wenger has blooded hundreds of young players in his time, and knows better than most that the challenge is as much mental as technical. "You do not get 10 opportunities to play for Arsenal," he warned. "When you get it, even if you only get 20 minutes, you have to convince people you have the qualities to do it, and you have the courage to play. There is always an uncertainty. You see in training that the player has the quality.
"To show it during competition is something different. And in my experience, you only discover that during the competition."
Mertesacker, who made his European debut aged 21 against Barcelona, echoed the sentiment. "We see a lot of young players, they have a good future here," he said. "But you also need to develop them in a lot of areas. It's now about resisting those pressure situations, the lapses of concentration."
The road to regular first-team football is long and arduous. Just ask Jack Wilshere, for whom this game is a crucial milepost in the battle to salvage his Arsenal career. Shkodran Mustafi could also do with some form.
Arsenal arrive in search of lessons but, without the points, they run the risk of learning very little. (© Daily Telegraph, London)
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