Mathieu Flamini: "We have to be at the front of the physical battle... if we have to fight, we fight"

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With a virtual ever-presence this season, a clutch of man-of-the-match awards and a great "complicity", as he calls it, with the rest of the Arsenal midfield, Mathieu is not having it. "No, no, no," he says when asked about the nickname he acquired from his team-mates. "It was the African players who started it because, you know, I never give up."

Gattuso is what they named him. And now, tonight, will face Milan - Gennaro Gattuso, newly recovered from his thigh injury, and all - in the last 16 of the Champions League. The direct comparison with the piratical Italian midfielder - himself known as "Ringhio" (the "Snarler") - is not one, however, that the young Frenchman enjoys.

"I don't think so," says when asked if it's a fair reflection. "It's true they call me it and he's a great player. I don't want sound disrespectful to the guy because he's amazing but I think I'm a different player to him. I'm more attacking. We try and play a little more football. And, anyway, I want to make my own name in the football world."

Which, given his impressive form this season, is exactly what he is doing. Nevertheless there are two other midfielders Flamini, who as a boy in Marseilles also admired Didier Deschamps, cherishes comparisons with. "Patrick Vieira and Roy Keane," he volunteers. "Amazing. They did so well in this league. I want to become a player like they were. They were fighters, they were great footballers, they made the difference at their clubs, they had great spirit, great experience - and they led their teams."

Mathieu is a leader, also. Not 24 until next month, he claims to be one of the more vocal members of the team. "I like to speak on the pitch," he explains. "What is good in our team is that we have really good communication. Everyone is taking responsibility and talking to each other, making things better."

Given his position on the field, and his desire to take over the mantle, it's easy to see that it is Vieira who he wants to emulate. His fellow Frenchman left in 2005 and, maybe, had not been properly replaced until Flamini's emergence this season.

"I'm trying to give a little bit more physical presence in midfield," he explains. "Cesc (Fabregas) is a little bit more offensive so I have to police the midfield. I have to protect my defence, stay in the middle and focus on stopping their attacks. It's very important because the midfield is the heart of the team. In England, every week, every team is fighting. It's important to win the fight first and then after that to play. Because if you don't win the fight you cannot play. The team understands that. Everyone knows the fight comes first and then we play.

"When you are playing a team like Blackburn, from the start they want a physical game. You need to react. What is most important is that we are playing for Arsenal. We all want to play football. It's a pleasure to play the way we play. But we have to be at the front of the physical battle because we have proved from the start of the season that if we have to fight, we fight."

Until now that combativeness has been the missing ingredient for Arsene Wenger's squad. Despite all their subtle skills and wonderful, flowing football an ability to stand firm has, at times, and despite the guile of Gilberto Silva, been lacking. Indeed it has been part of a significant shift in the make-up of the team, most obvious in the departure of Thierry Henry - and the decision to award William Gallas the captaincy.

"When Thierry played with us he was a huge player," Mathieu explains. "One of the best in the world. So, of course, all the attention was on him. When he left we all had to take responsibility and that has happened. It has been good for the team. The players up front can score, the midfield can score and the defenders can score. And William is a guy who is going to push the team in difficult moments. You need that, too. He's a winner and you need winners in the team, guys who hate to lose, who want to win at everything. I hate to lose. I want to win in training. Some say I'm a bad loser and, yeah, I am. I've always been like that. If I play something I want to win. Not just in football. Playing cards or anything. If not, then there is no point in playing. If you don't want to win then don't play."

Flamini grew up in the south of Marseilles although his father Roland is from Rome - making the clash with Milan all the more special - and his mother Mathea from Corsica. "Year after year the football became more serious," he says, having also been a judo enthusiast as a boy. Eventually it had to go, as did his legal studies - he spent six months at university - before he made it into the Marseilles first team. "I was very young," he recalls, "and we got to the final of the Uefa Cup which made me very proud."

It also brought him to prominence but, by then, Wenger, in his usual fashion, had already made his move. Marseilles were livid, their then coach Jose Anigo accusing of a "beautiful treason" and of reneging on a deal as he signed a four-year contract with Arsenal in the summer of 2004. Arsenal were eventually ordered, by the Court of Arbitration for Sport, to pay Marseilles £320,000 in compensation for developing the player, which makes the signing even more of a steal. The French club had demanded £10m.

Although Marseilles are a "big club", and one he had been attached to for 14 years, leaving for Arsenal was, according to Mathieu, an easy decision. "For me, there is English football first and then Italian and Spanish," he says. "In England from the first until the last minute players are giving everything to score. You defend, then you attack, you defend, then you attack. I like to be involved like that. In France the game is played by periods. In England it's from the first to the last minute. Physically it's stronger here. It's quicker and I believe that has made the technical level very high."

Still, and despite making his first-team debut soon after he signed, Mathieu struggled. He flitted in and out of games, in and out of the teams, earning that perennially unwanted tag as a utility man. "It was difficult because I wanted to prove to everyone that I could play," he recalls. "I was waiting, I was waiting - I don't know how long I was waiting! I worked hard for three and a half seasons and giving everything but I had to wait to become a regular player. Even when he went to the Champions League Final (2006) I played every game from December to the end of the season - but I was playing left-back. So my natural position was midfield. Only this year did I find my place."

He came on, as a second-half substitute, in that Paris final which ended in defeat to Barcelona. After that Flamini sought out Wenger for a heart-to-heart and informed him that he wasn't a left-back. If he wasn't good enough to play in midfield, he said, then he wasn't good enough for Arsenal. "I wanted to fight for my place there, in my position," he recalls. "I was sure I could play there and said I would prefer to fight for my place."

It also, however, increased the likelihood that he would leave. With his contract due to expire this summer, there was talk of buying out the final year while, in exasperation, he authorised his uncle to call the French sports newspaper L'Equipe to publicise his potential availability. There was plenty of interest, not least from Italy. "I hoped I would not have to leave," he says. "And things can change quickly in football."

They did. Returning for pre-season training last summer Flamini found himself in the team. Such has been his influence that Arsenal have been desperate to tie him down to a five-year contract for months. Indeed he's the only player currently in negotiations over a new deal. "It's true we are talking," says. Will he sign? His response is positive, if a little non-committal "I'm very happy at Arsenal and hope that everything is going to be ok. I hope to stay."

Warm-up tournaments in Amsterdam and at the Emirates Stadium were won and confidence grew. Things were starting to gel. "We knew then that we could do something," he says. "For me, it was just a case of 'keep going, keep going'. I told myself 'this is your chance, take it. Do what you have to do, do your best and after that what happens will happen'. I've found my place, I have good complicity with the other midfielders."

The key to their football, Mathieu says, is simple. "Technique is very important," he explains. "But we also understand each other. Everyone gives something, a different quality to give something more to the team. Everyone - myself, Cesc, Alex, Tomas - all add something different to the midfield." There is, he says, another vital ingredient. "But the big difference has been the spirit. The quality was there but we needed that spirit," explains. "From the start we showed we knew each other well and had the capacity to win the title race."

And the Champions League? "We want to win," he says. "We are high on confidence. It's true that we are a very young team but we also have a lot of experience because we have been playing at a very high level for some time. We have great experience and we are not afraid of anyone." And certainly not Gattuso, the growler.