The first seats were put in place in Arsenal FC's new stadium at Ashburton Grove a fortnight ago as the days tick down to the end of an era at Highbury. Just as the finishing touches are put to Arsenal's future home, manager Arsène Wenger is completing a remarkable rebuilding job of his own.
The return of Patrick Vieira this week will emphasise just how much has changed since the French midfielder left north London for Juventus last summer. Spanish teenager Cesc Fabregas now runs the Arsenal midfield while Thierry Henry has taken the captain's armband, tasked with easing the transition as a fresh-faced side finds its feet. Wenger has been building this team for years. The financial constraints imposed by the new ground meant Arsenal would struggle to compete in the transfer market. Wenger instead turned to youth.
For a manager who brought the best out of Henry and Vieira, it is no surprise to see the quality now breaking into the side. What has come as a surprise is the speed with which his young charges have risen to the challenge. Only eight weeks ago, Wenger was enduring his "worst week" at Highbury as Arsenal lost in the Premiership and were knocked out of the FA and League Cups. Now they are the only English club in with a shot of winning the UEFA Champions League, and will be well rested after their Premiership game on Saturday was postponed.
"We are a young team, no one thought we could come this far and beat Real Madrid [CF]," Kolo Touré told uefa.com. "The youngsters listen a lot to those of us who have played a few more matches, which really helps our defensive work. We try to talk to them and give them advice. They listen well and they work hard during training which is why they give such good performances."
At just 24, Touré is the veteran of a fledgling Arsenal back line that, in the absence of injured regulars Sol Campbell, Ashley Cole and Lauren, kept Madrid from scoring over two legs. Mathieu Flamini, 22, Emmanuel Eboué, 22, and Philippe Senderos, 21, have all surpassed expectations, with right-back Eboué in particular catching the eye since helping the Ivory Coast reach the African Cup of Nations final. They have performed so well that Wenger now faces a tough decision as Campbell returns to fitness.
Arsenal paid dearly for defensive lapses earlier this term, but now boast the Premiership's third-meanest defence. They have also not conceded for six matches in the UEFA Champions League where a change to a 4-5-1 formation has brought solidity. "As a defender you need to be very attentive and work as a team," Touré said. "It's not only the defence that has worked so well but the whole team, starting with Thierry Henry. In the middle Gilberto helps us enormously, this is why we are playing so well in the UEFA Champions League."
Flamini, a central midfielder, has had to adapt to a new challenge at left-back, but has grown into the role thanks largely to the players around him. "It's a real surprise, but as long as the team needs it, I will do my best," he told uefa.com. "It's true it's not easy as I don't have the reflexes that a real left-back would have, but I try my best and talk a lot to my team-mates and it's working out. We have had some bad moments and conceded some stupid goals, but I think we are coming together." Just in time to welcome Vieira back to Highbury.
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