It is unlikely to be what a tempestuous 2008 is remembered for, but Arsenal's year has been bookended by visits to Burnley. They embarked on the first under the assumption that, as in the neighbouring northern towns of Bolton and Blackburn, a group of bruisers had been assembled to disrupt their passing game by any possible means.
They return to Turf Moor knowing Arsene Wenger has a kindred spirit in Owen Coyle. They are, along with Rafa Benitez, among a select band of three managers who have triumphed at Chelsea this season. Burnley's Carling Cup victory, on penalties following a 1-1 draw, set up tonight's quarter-final and a meeting of minds. When Arsenal won 2-0 in the FA Cup in January, Wenger said: "I was impressed by them. What surprised me was how quickly they could pass and how well they played in midfield with their combinations."
He could have been talking of Arsenal, even if Burnley's technicians lack the potential of their counterparts at the Emirates Stadium. Nevertheless, their attempts to out-pass Chelsea were rewarded. It was not what Wenger anticipated in January. The Frenchman had fielded one of Arsenal's tallest teams in anticipation of a physical encounter. While other Lancastrian sides dispute Wenger's damning analysis of their tactics, his admiration for Coyle has become apparent. Loaning Burnley the midfielder Mark Randall constituted his seal of approval.
The teenager is back at Turf Moor tonight as part of another youthful ensemble. After scoring nine unanswered goals against Sheffield United and Wigan, Wenger has seen no need for an injection of experience or, on this occasion, additional muscle. Alex Song is sole survivor of the team who won at Chelsea, and it is conceivable that Burnley's Graham Alexander, 37, will, on the 838th appearance of his club career, have played more games than the entire Arsenal side.
Chris Eagles, who ranked some way down Manchester United's list of Cristiano Ronaldo's understudies but shares some of the Portuguese's characteristics, may present the greatest danger to Arsenal. The Irish midfielder Chris McCann and Northern Irieland striker Martin Paterson offer other threats though Wenger's gameplan is rarely constructed with the opposition in mind. Instead, the next generation are just sent out to play. The gifted Carlos Vela has provided the most compelling entertainment of this season's Carling Cup. And as the youngsters visit one of English football's most historic clubs, they should provide another enticing glimpse of the future.