Football: Presenting Emmanuel Le Grand

Petit's massive influence is giving Arsenal a reason to believe again as their manager defends his world stars
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THE FRENCH have a word for it. Un tricheur. Like most things Gallic, it sounds a great deal more benign than its English translation. A cheat sounds precisely like what it means. On the last day of 1998 in which his team had won the Double and his country the World Cup it may be considered incongruous that Arsene Wenger should be defending his side's disciplinary record with the use of a word, directed principally against Charlton Athletic's Neil Redfearn, which should have no place in our national game. Yet, in truth, it's been that sort of year. For every set of champions to savour, there have been cheats to censure. For every chef d'oeuvre to drool over there has been a charlatan to condemn.

It was actually in broaching the beautiful nature of the game, and the question of whether his two French midfield players, Emmanuel Petit and Patrick Vieira, hold authentic claims to being the best such partnership in the world, which provoked the Arsenal manager's critique of the beastly side.

It is a valid query because, all too soon, it will be time for us charged with that responsibility to decide the Footballer of the Year. Roy Keane will inevitably have his advocates; so, too Marc Overmars, who tended to be overlooked last year because of the clamour for his team-mate Dennis Bergkamp.

Then there is the White Hart Lane dream-boat who has done more for shampoo than Warren Beatty, David Ginola. But in another long-haired character, the D'Artagnan of the three French musketeers at Highbury - along with Nicolas Anelka and Vieira - is a player who may be said to have transcended them all as a massive influence for his team, not just this season, but throughout the entire year. Only his absences with injury may count against the vote for him, although in a sense they also testify to his contribution.

It is significant that Petit was missing when Arsenal fell to their worst Premiership defeat of the season, 3-2 at Aston Villa, after holding a 2-0 half-time lead. For a man who allies artistry and vision going forward with the vigilance of a neighbourhood watch member and a firm tackle when under assault, he cost, in today's terms, almost throwaway money, pounds 3.5m, when Wenger procured him from his own former club, Monaco. What price Petit, whose goal against Brazil in the World Cup final was the climax of an exceptional tournament for him, on the Euro market now? Fifteen million euros? If ever there was a misnomer, Petit is it. Emmanuel Le Grand might be more appropriate after such a year.

The fact that the Gunners' rearguard have conceded only 11 goals in 20 Premiership games is due, in no small part, to his presence. "Petit can find an extra gear, which helps him with his defensive responsibilities," reflected Wenger of the player born 28 years ago in Dieppe. (What would Glenn Hoddle give for him to have been born the other side of the Channel?) "He is a born reader of the game. That means when he sees Nigel Winterburn go forward he simultaneously drops back, or sees Steve Bould out of position he will cover for him. That makes us defensively more efficient."

Inevitably, both Petit and his fellow midfield patrolman, Vieira, have become the victim of close attention. "Many teams now mark Patrick and `Manu' individually; that means more physical challenges. Normally they cope with it because of their physical presence, but at the moment everybody tries to get Patrick upset because they know he is vulnerable."

Few would dispute that Redfearn, a veteran of 18 years in the game, was attempting to rile Vieira in that now infamous incident at The Valley, and succeeded. It is difficult not to sympathise with Wenger, who witnessed his man dismissed for a relatively minor misdemeanour - albeit one punishable by red under the rules - while Bergkamp failed to finish the game, and is unlikely to face Preston North End in their FA Cup tie tomorrow because of a malicious challenge from Eddie Youds, for which the latter was merely cautioned. Three days later, Wenger was still exasperated. "Redfearn should be charged because he cheated the referee. Patrick is a tall boy and he pushes him away, but why the red card? Because Redfearn goes down and acts as though he has been hit in the face," Wenger said.

"One of the things I admire about English players is that they don't try to get other players booked and they don't cheat. But that was a case of copying bad habits brought in from abroad. I hate it, even from my players."

Two disciplinary issues have been identified by that game. One is for referees to address: the protection of the player in possession by taking a firm stance when a tackle is likely to maim. The other, the question of integrity, is in the hands of the players themselves, and for their union chief Gordon Taylor to emphasise.

It was once part of the unofficial player's code that he attempted to persuade a referee not to send off a fellow professional. Now the opposite is too frequently the case - unless the Manchester United players who surrounded Mike Reilly following Franck Leboeuf's brush with David Beckham on Tuesday claim they were in fact pleading for him to remain on the field - along with feigning injury and assault.

As Wenger stressed: "The game is difficult enough for the referee at the moment, but if everyone tries to cheat and go down, there is nothing more annoying. And it is spreading. The players' union must act against it.

"Patrick might react to a challenge, but I have never seen him go down to try to cheat. My guys are targeted and it was difficult for Dennis to accept that Patrick had been sent off for what he'd done, but the tackle against him, by Youds, had not been punished."

Bergkamp's likely absence, with Anelka already out, means for a sardonic Wenger that "it's all good news for Preston" tomorrow night when the teams meet in their third-round tie. Arsenal might be holders but Wenger conceded: "I know from last year how hard it can be. If I was just arriving now, I'd tell you that Preston might be easy. But we've played Stoke and Port Vale in my time here and they've been very difficult games for us."

At least his missing players have offered the chance for their understudies to hone their craft. "Players like Luis Boa Morte, Christophe Wreh and Alex Manninger are all improving, getting more experience and gaining confidence," said Wenger. Boa Morte, a Portuguese Under-21 international whose name means "good death", is a dead ringer for Ian Wright. The forward, whose family comes from Angola, has a considerable way to go before he achieves the status of "Wrighty", but at 21 has years on his side. "It is difficult to come to a club like this and do well immediately," said Boa Morte, who was plucked from the obscurity of Sporting Lisbon "B" team, a club he joined at 11 after seeing an advert about training with them in a newspaper. "But I am learning from excellent players all the time."

Wright apparently offered him advice before departing for Upton Park. It would not have included how a once-illustrious club, twice FA Cup winners, will be inspired by a fellow called the Preston Plumber (one Tom Finney) to heap embarrassment on his team. Boa Morte will discover for himself that, in the world's most prestigious cup competition, there is absolutely no respect for high-paid, much-vaunted Premiership players. He should just ask them over at Wrexham.