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By Richard Clarke
Arsène Wenger refuses to accept that he has come to Greece bearing gifts.
The Arsenal manager arrived in Athens on Tuesday with a pre-dominantly teenage squad ahead of what, for his team at least, is a dead rubber.
The North London side secured top spot in Champions League Group H on Matchday Five so, with injuries biting into his first-team squad, the Frenchman has decided to debut two 18-year-olds - Tom Cruise and Kyle Bartley - in his defence while continuing the education of Jack Wilshere, 17.
Olympiacos need a point to join Arsenal in the Knockout Round so, understandably, the manager's selection policy was under scrutiny at his pre-match press conference. But Wenger argues, in the final group game, a fully-motivated young side could be more competitive than a more experienced outfit with less to play for.
"I want to respect the competition and I know that Olympiacos plays for a point to qualify," he said. "But the most important is that we do well, we have a fair game and a good chance to win.
"Sometimes a team like this will be more focused than a team who is already qualified but has regular players.
"You will see Silvestre, Song, Ramsey, Gilbert and Vela. These are all players who have played at the top level.
"We want to have a good game, and what is the most important is the quality of our play. We could draw, for example, with a normal team and that would not be a bad result.
"We are committed, and will fight to win the game. Afterwards, if Standard are in that position, it is because they could not win the games before."
Naturally, the inclusion of Cruise has made headlines but Bartley's debut will be illuminating. The commanding centre-half arrived from Bolton in the summer of 2007 and, last season, was the backbone of the Youth Cup winning side. He now captains the Reserves and has a knack of scoring important goals.
The other unfamiliar names are likely to man the bench and Wenger can still boast five current internationals in his starting line-up plus the ultra-experienced Mikael Silvestre at centre-back. Nonetheless, the Georgios Karaiskakis Stadium is a famously intimidating environment. Tonight will be the epitome of a hothouse education and the manager likes it that way.
"For the young players it is a good opportunity to show they have quality and can cope with pressure away from home in a very hot atmosphere," he said.
"I don't know if it's going to affect them. I believe we will focus to play our game. We're used in England to having a difficult atmosphere and the best way to cool down a hot atmosphere is to play football well."
Arsenal bossed the game at Emirates Stadium on September 29, but keeper Antonis Nikopolidis held out until the final 12 minutes when Robin van Persie and Andrey Arshavin scored.
Like Arsenal, the Greek champions have won all the home games in this year's Champions League. Domestically, they are leading the way and, crucially, beat Panathinaikos 2-0 at the end of November.
They have conceded just six goals in 13 Greek League games this season and half of those have come in the final 15 minutes. The likes of Olof Mellberg, Didier Domi and Raul Bravo will be familiar to Premier League audiences meanwhile if you have not heard of manager Zico then you have clearly just landed on Planet Soccer.
The Brazilian legend described Arsenal as conjuring up "PlayStation football" in the first leg.
"I am very honoured to have that comment from such a great football personality," said Wenger in reply. "I knew him when he was a player and I know him from Japan. He was the one who launched football there so I have a lot of respect for him.
"It's very difficult to say [if Olympiacos are best equipped to join Arsenal in the Knockout Stages] because we have basically won all the games at home with the same score," the manager went on. "For me it depends how well they do at home. We had two difficult away games at Standard and Alkmaar and it depends how well Olympiacos will do against us tomorrow because at home the difficulty of all three clubs was nearly the same for us
"But I would be happy to test the goalkeeper as much as we did at Emirates."
Copyright 2023 The Arsenal Football Club Limited. Permission to use quotations from this article is granted subject to appropriate credit being given to www.arsenal.com as the source.