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Football: BERGY WARNS YOUNG GUNS: IT'S YOUR CAREERS ON THE LINE NOW.

Byline: By JOHN CROSS

DENNIS BERGKAMP last night warned Arsenal's kids must come of age to reach the Champions League - or it could permanently damage their careers.

Arsene Wenger's men have plunged from title contenders to a team desperately clinging on to the hope of a Champions League place. But Bergkamp admits it is a gamble to leave their European hopes resting on the shoulders of rookies, as they lack the experience of some of their rivals.

The Gunners have slipped 24 points behind Chelsea - and are also way behind Manchester United and Liverpool - while they find themselves competing with bitter rivals Tottenham and Wigan for fourth place.

Boss Wenger has relied heavily on young players such as Cesc Fabregas, Mathieu Flamini and Robin van Persie. Dutch veteran Bergkamp admits Arsenal have missed the leadership and experience of skipper Patrick Vieira this season.

Bergkamp, 36, said: "It was quite a shock when Patrick left.

"You really get to notice the difference when you don't have those players in certain games and at certain parts of the season. It's very important for them to understand what it's all about.

"Hopefully they will pick that up and learn from that. If they do, they can be fantastic players. If they don't, they will struggle for the rest of their careers.

"Our young players have got the talent, they need the power. Now to get used to the English game, they need experience.

"But the talent is definitely there, it's a matter of development and they have to be with the right people around them.

"But there's no room for error, there's no room for breathing. You can't think about the game because the next match is there.

"Especially with the midfielders as we don't have that many in that position, so they have to learn quickly and they're doing that. It's an important year for them.

"I think it's very important that they feel confident. At the moment, playing with an extra man in midfield, somehow they feel happier as they can focus more on their own little area.

"In the future, that could be different for them. They have to widen up a little bit but at the moment, it's much better.

"For everyone at Arsenal, you want to make something special of this last season at Highbury. I think it's important for us."

Skipper Thierry Henry believes Arsenal will improve when Ashley Cole returns from injury.

"When Ashley comes back, it's going to be another story as he was part of our strong side," vowed Henry. "Sometimes it's a bit difficult when Ashley isn't there as he knows what to do going up.

"We have to dig in, as we're doing. At the moment, it's really important not to concede goals ... and at least we did not lose against Manchester United."

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Title Annotation:Sport
Publication:The Mirror (London, England)
Date:Jan 5, 2006
Words:479
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