Arsenal's youngsters face test of mettle

21105 - Arsenal's youngsters face test of mettle

To fight on four fronts is as great a challenge as is possible in English football. On Sunday, Arsenal have the chance to write off item one in their quest for unmatchable glory. However, the cracks effected by spreading themselves too thinly are beginning to show. Wear and tear will always happen along the way. Luck is required and needs to hold out.

Sunday's late-afternoon stroll on to the Wembley surface will mark the end of an 11-day period in which they will have played in each of the four competitions. They remain on course in each, but not without cost. The high of beating Barcelona in the Champions League was followed by a crashing down to reality at Leyton Orient, while a vital league win against Stoke City saw significant collateral damage.

Birmingham City will feel relief at not facing either Theo Walcott or Cesc Fabregas, who both departed early on Wednesday. Walcott's sprained ankle rids him of the chance to put on a show at Wembley, a place where he has enjoyed mixed fortunes.

In Birmingham, he faces a familiar foe, and one with whom he has a testy relationship. The scars of Eduardo's multiple fracture at St Andrew's are yet to heal in more ways than one. Martin Taylor may now be a former Blues player but the legacy of his ill-timed tackle three years ago is still one of emnity. Alex McLeish mounted a stout defence of his charge then and has never wavered from his opinion since.

And McLeish's team play a style of the type that can antagonise Arsenal's aristocratic air of self-entitlement. That will be the underdogs' aim. This is a team of experience, and battle-hardened too. The likes of Lee Bowyer and Barry Ferguson may be long in the tooth but big on snarls too, and both have played at the highest of levels. Captain Stephen Carr won this trophy in 1999 as a Tottenham player, and will be keen to repeat the experience.

And the Scot is no stranger to showpiece occasions, having led Rangers to five cup triumphs while a manager north of the border. Indeed, his last major honour came in 2005, a date that rankles with Arsene Wenger too. That was his last lifting of silverware, over in Cardiff after a successful penalty shoot-out wrested the FA Cup from Manchester United. This season has seen him alter his usual approach to this competition, his selection of a group of definite first-teamers against Tottenham in September alerting to a change in focus, when before he had used the quest for the third-most important domestic bauble as a chance to play his younger players.

Indeed, in the 2007 renewal of this day, his team's last final, Wenger stuck with a young team of which only Manuel Almunia, Fabregas, Walcott, Abou Diaby and Emmanuel Eboue remain at the club from his squad of 16. He has a far stronger squad now, and is likely to be able to blood players of a higher quality here while still being able to keep powder dry for the battles ahead.