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Football: Vieira vies for Double glory and French passage

Glenn Moore meets the combative 21-year-old midfielder who has won admirers at Highbury and beyond this season, culminating perhaps in FA Cup triumph today and a place in France's World Cup squad

THEY will look an odd pair when, as they surely will, they square up to each other at Wembley today. The short, blond Yorkshireman and the tall, black Senegalese. It will be not so much eyeball-to-eyeball as forehead- to-chin but, do not be mistaken, as David Batty and Patrick Vieira snarl at each other there will be mutual respect behind the machismo.

Batty, says Vieira, "is the best English midfielder in the Premiership." This is not a view everybody shares but its recipient is unlikely to be any less effusive about Vieira. While the defenders have been lauded and the star Dutch striker rewarded, the Highbury faithful have no doubts their Dakar-born French international midfielder is the key man behind Arsenal's march towards the Double.

One long-time season-ticket holder said yesterday that Vieira was in the process of supplanting Ian Wright as Highbury's cult hero. One indication of this is that the first chant is now the poetic: "He comes from Senegal, he plays for Arsenal, Vieira, Vieira".

The 21-year-old was an instant hit at Arsenal, making his debut as a substitute against Sheffield Wednesday in September 1996, the same night as Arsene Wenger greeted the faithful by video link having been confirmed as manager. He quickly helped turn a 1-0 deficit into a 4-1 win and a legend was born.

Vieira has since forged an impressive midfield bulwark with his compatriot Emmanuel Petit which, said Martin Keown, "has certainly made our job easier in defence - it will probably extend my career." Both Frenchmen have been included in Aime Jacquet's 28-man pre-World Cup squad and, while Petit appears resigned to missing out, Vieira thinks a good performance today could help him make the finals. "It is a very important match, the last before the 22 is named," he said. "It is on French TV and everybody will be watching it around the world. It is a very important game for us. Manu [Petit], Nicolas [Anelka] and myself all have a chance, we are all 50- 50."

Among those watching will be relatives in Senegal where the game is being relayed live by by the cable channel Canal+. With a national average of one television for every 30 people, there will be much crowding around to see Senegal's most famous export since Youssou N'Dour, the pop singer who, incidentally, performs the official World Cup anthem.

Vieira left Senegal, a former French west African colony, aged seven, to join his mother, a school dinner lady in a mundane Parisian suburb. He joined Tours, then Cannes, where Luis Fernandez gave him his debut at 18. He was soon a captain but, almost as quickly, became a reserve as Milan signed and forgot him. He played just twice in Serie A with his most dramatic involvement coming as a passenger when George Weah, who had taken him under his wing, wrote off his car on the Cote d'Azur.

Fortunately, he had earlier made a better impression in the area, playing for Cannes against Monaco. "I knew that I must follow his progress," said Wenger, then at Monaco. "I saw his quick responses, quick movement of the feet for such a tall player and that he could already pick the right forward pass." Wenger later recommended him to Highbury and, for pounds 3.5m, Milan were persuaded to sell.

The presence of Wenger, who had been given a glowing reference by Weah, was a major influence in his coming. "I knew his training would teach me a lot," Vieira said. "He is a good manager if you have a problem you can talk to him, there is a very good dialogue between manager and player." Vieira speaks good English in a soft voice using his hands - one adorned with a chunky watch, the other with a ring with the initial P on it - to add emphasis.

When he stands he looks lean and leggy, almost gawky, but he moves with surprising elegance and deceptive speed on the pitch, eating up the ground like Curtly Ambrose running between the wickets. At Barnsley last month he raced for goal pursued by Martin Bullock and Scott Jones. Neither are slouches but, giving away eight and 11 inches respectively, they made a comical sight as their little legs frantically tried to catch his spidery figure.

Vieira's own legs appear telescopic as they snake out to intercept or tackle. Mark McGhee, recalling the semi-final with Wolves, said: "He was the fittest player I've seen in a long time. At his best he reminds me of Graeme Souness, harassing players, setting the tempo, dominating games with his fitness. He breaks things down, chases people into making mistakes and has a tremendous tackle. He makes a challenge, the ball goes for a throw-in and there he is again, as if he hasn't broken sweat."

With an impressive first touch, a powerful shot and a steely determination he appears the complete midfielder but he is not perfect. He has been sent off twice, booked 11 times and is facing an Football Association inquiry over video evidence that he kicked West Ham's Ian Pearce off the ball during the FA Cup tie at Upton Park.

Today's referee is Paul Durkin, England's World Cup referee who sent off Petit for laying his hands on him during the Aston Villa match at Highbury. Durkin did, however, rescind a yellow card he had given to Vieira in March after seeing the video.

That decision came as Vieira was improving his record with only one booking in the latter stages of the season. "When you play in my position it is very difficult to avoid red and yellow cards because you need to have determination and aggression," he said. "I spoke to the manager and some players but I haven't changed. I keep the same determination."

What has changed is his attitude to referees and, with Arsenal's improvement in form, his mood. "When I was not playing so good, and we lost, I was blaming the referee. I needed to accept it was my fault. I got so many cards because I was talking too much."

Both he and the Highbury faithful will want his football to do the talking today.