Clichy out to prove he can fill Cole gap

ALL eyes will be on Ashley Cole this afternoon for the Chelsea man's first game against his former club, and he will no doubt feel he has a point to prove against the Gunners. So, though, will the young Frenchman who has stepped into Cole's boots as Arsenal left-back.

Gael Clichy reckons he is now just about back to top form after a tiresome time with injuries held up his progress last season. The 21-year-old left-sided defender, who started out as a right-footed striker in junior football in his native Toulouse, wants to prove to Arsenal fans that their club got the better part of the deal that saw Cole join Chelsea back in August, with William Gallas and about 5m moving in the opposite direction. Clichy, who rates Cole as "one of the best left-backs in the world", says the departure of the England international was a bitter-sweet moment for him.

"Of course, when Ashley left, I was sad to see him go," the level-headed Clichy tells me. "As a young player it was great to train with someone like him, who you could look up to and learn from. But at the same time I said to myself, this is an opportunity I have to seize. With Ashley gone, I'm perhaps the only specialist left-back now, although I have to watch out for Armand Traore [yet another bright, young French thing], who's coming along well too.

"I just know that it's time to step up to the plate, show what I'm worth. These are really important times for me and for the club. I feel like I'm ready to pay back all the faith Arsene Wenger has shown in me. I think this could be my breakthrough season, and I'm raring to go."

Clichy, who is starting to look like one of the Premiership's most impressive youngsters, can thank his manager's inspiration for his comeback from what a few months ago appeared to be a career-threatening injury. After first suffering the fashionable metatarsal injury, Clichy then found himself with an ankle worry that nobody seemed able to resolve. He underwent unsuccessful operations in both England and France earlier this year, leading the despairing Arsenal boss to scour the internet for a specialist who might find a solution.

Wenger came up with the name of Dr Mark Myerson, orthopedic and medical director for the Institute for Foot and Ankle Reconstruction at the Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore, Maryland. Myerson, who has worked with some of the biggest names in American sports, is one of the leading experts on metatarsal injuries and has pioneered surgery to correct ankle fractures. Clichy got himself an appointment and, risking the wrath of French football authorities, pulled out of the France Under-21 squad that was preparing for last summer's European Championship in the Netherlands to head over to Baltimore. He spent five days in the US and then returned to London with his fingers crossed after yet another operation.

"We were looking for the top specialist and Dr Myerson was known in the States as the best guy around," said Clichy. "We had to go for it. It was a trying time, not knowing whether it would work or not, and you have to work hard to keep your spirits up. I've been through a frustrating period, all in all. When Ashley was injured last season I came in and was doing OK. Then I was injured again, just when I thought I perhaps had a chance to claim the place. As all sportsmen know, it is very frustrating when you are injured. I had to keep reminding myself there were people worse off than me. I had to focus on my rehabilitation.

"All the lads were great to me. Kolo [Tour] was like a big brother and Philippe [Senderos] and Abou [Diaby] were a big help. So were my family. You have to be strong in times like that. You learn a lot about yourself, and you learn from the whole experience. Now I'm just so glad to be playing again."

This afternoon's clash with Chelsea will be another test of his mettle but he has been groomed for moments like this by his mentor, Wenger, who first spotted him as a skinny 16-year-old breaking into third division side Cannes. After he played only 15 matches in France, Wenger convinced Clichy and his parents Joel and Jacqueline that he had a better future awaiting him in north London than with French giants Marseille, who had been taking an interest in him.

Clichy was whisked off to London, put into digs and left to adapt to his new environment. It was time to sink or swim for a young lad who had never been very good at English at school. Clichy, though, proved to be a quick learner. On and off the field. And, just like Cole before him, Clichy soon realised that, at Arsenal, it's not your age that counts but whether you are good enough. He played in a dozen games in Arsenal's invincible 2003-2004 title-winning team and also made his Champions League debut. All at left-back, of course. Which is not bad when you hear his father tell of how Gael couldn't and wouldn't even use his left peg as a kid. Clichy junior played for Hersoise, a team in the Toulouse suburbs, from the age of five. Clichy senior was coach and often referee too. I'll let Joel tell the rest of the story.

"Like lots of young kids, Gael was only interested in using his better foot, but I kept on at him to work on his left," explains Joel Clichy with a grin. "I remember refereeing a quarter-final match Gael was involved in, and I thought here's a chance to teach him a lesson. I told him that if he scored with his right foot I would find a way to disallow it. So of course he scored. And I did disallow it, even though we were losing the match! No one understood what was going on. But I can tell you he started using his left foot after that! And it got to the point where he eventually forgot his right foot. Now, when we talk about it, he says 'thanks Papa' and that's something that makes me happy."

With Arsenal missing the experienced Gallas and Lauren because of injury and Tour through suspension, Wenger's back-line against Chelsea will likely feature Emmanuel Ebou (aged 23), Johan Djourou (19), Senderos (21) and Clichy. In other words, a defence with an average age of 21 up against the likes of Didier Drogba, Andriy Shevchenko and whoever else Jose Mourinho chooses to throw at them.

Clichy says he's not fazed. "I want to prove to everyone, show everyone, that I am capable of filling Ashley Cole's boots," he says, a steely look suddenly coming over him. "We've got a young defence and we've made too many individual errors this season. They've cost us, and it's time to cut them out. But we're gaining experience all the time and I think the future is bright. The future is ours."