By Richard Clarke
TV talent shows are all the rage right now.
In England and around the world, there are a raft of programmes asking gifted, mostly young, performers to demonstrate their skills in front of the most appreciative audiences and the harshest judges.
It is a daunting, demanding environment which only intensifies round-by-round. But the rewards are huge.
The Carling Cup operates in the same welcoming yet unforgiving way and tonight we’ll get another indication as to whether Arsenal’s got talent and, indeed, who has got the X-Factor.
The competition is the penultimate filter for Arsène Wenger in his bid to find first-team stars. The final test is thrusting them on the centre stage of the Premier League. So for players like Aaron Ramsey this is the ultimate audition.
The Welsh teenager had a solid first season at Emirates Stadium but his 28 Arsenal appearances to date have included only one Premier League start. Running the game against quality opposition in the Carling Cup can only push his claims.
Pre-match, the 18-year-old suggested he was no longer the “kid in the dressing room”. Statistically that will be true tonight but emotionally, physically and, to coin a Wengerism, footballistically, it is the same whatever the game these days.
“Twelve months ago he was running after the ball,” his manager told Arsenal TV Online. “When you're a young midfielder you do not always know where to position yourself but I believe he has improved a lot.
“A midfielder is someone who makes others play. But when you're very young you're more concerned about how you play. He's made a big evolution and don’t forget that Aaron Ramsey has outstanding physical qualities.
“He's quick, has fantastic stamina and he has become much more powerful with his body. I believe he is not far now from the other players and he's pushing everybody.”
Ramsey is young but hardly inexperienced. The same goes for others on show tonight: Kieran Gibbs, Carlos Vela and Armand Traore. Jack Wilshere continues his progress while Philippe Senderos and Mikael Silvestre provide a solid centre half partnership.
However all of those are known quantities. Perhaps the real excitement of the Carling Cup is about that ‘first-look’ at a potential star. We know Polish keeper Wojciech Szczesny will make his debut this evening while Francis Coquelin and Emmanuel Frimpong are interesting inclusions in the squad. The latter two were mainstays of the youth side that won a League and Cup ‘double’ last season. Wenger will have others on show aswell.
“We have players like Gilles Sunu and Sanchez Watt,” he said. “Craig Eastmond is involved, Kyle Bartley is involved as well. All of them are now there to play. We have some players on loan don't forget - we have Jay Emmanuel Thomas, Henri Lansbury - but you will see a few of them.”
With UEFA instigating higher quotas on home-grown players you could argue this competition is more important than it was two weeks ago. However, at the moment, all these youngsters have their careers in front of them, everything is potential.
Winger Jerome Thomas rose through the ranks at Arsenal but left in 2004 with just three Carling Cup appearances to his name. Yet the benefits of a Highbury education remain. He has since played Premier League football with Charlton and Portsmouth. Now 26, you’d bet he’d be back there next season given that an unbeaten West Brom are leading the Championship table right now.
“Jerome was always quality,” said Wenger. “He was just not always consistent. But you know that these sort of players, when they get a bit more mature, they will produce their real quality and he is now at the right age.”
The right age perhaps to trouble, and therefore educate, the next generation of Arsenal stars. The same goes for the rest of the West Brom squad as well.
“They just had a fantastic win 5-0 at Middlesbrough,” said Wenger. “That tells you we face a very good side basically a Premier League team. The challenge will be very high for us but we're up for it and we believe we can do it.”
It looks another tall order for Arsenal. But then it is no more sizable than Wigan (twice), Sheffield United, Tottenham (twice), Newcastle, Reading and Everton – the teams who have failed to beat the youngsters since their last home defeat in the Carling Cup back on January 24 2004.
“We are very proud of these players because we are always up for it,” concluded Wenger. “We know that when we play in front of our crowd everybody is raising above his level.
“That will be our target again.”
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