The Manchester City player perhaps most qualified to hurl abuse at Roberto Mancini on Tuesday night was the one who played an unwitting role in Carlos Tevez firing such choice opinions in the manager's direction. Patrick Vieira, whose call-up into the game against Tottenham inadvertently stoked the ire of an expectant Tevez, doesn't belong to the generation who hurl boots and shin-pads around dugouts, though privately he has been suffering for weeks.
The 34-year-old Vieira vindicated Mancini's judgement. His contribution in combating a Spurs midfield which was beginning to overwhelm City's in a 25-minute second-half period at Eastlands was probably his finest since he arrived at the club 16 months ago and will one day be a significant footnote in the history of how City got rich and took on the world.
Yet Vieira has been nursing a quiet indignation, this season being the first of his entire 17-year career in which has has been fully fit and yet unable to command regular, top-flight football. There have been just four Premier League starts, a reflection of the resources at Mancini's disposal perhaps, but to the eyes of many of French football's closest observers a desperate waste of a player who has arrived at his best physical shape for several years.
That display against Spurs suggests that Vieira, a four-times FA Cup winner with Arsenal and scorer of the last penalty in the shoot-out against Manchester United in his most recent appearance in the final in 2005, should be considered to face Stoke City at Wembley on Saturday, though Gareth Barry's absence from the squad on Tuesday indicated that he was being rested for the role.
The good money now is on Vieira calling it a day at the end of the season. He is understood to be less than delighted to have seemed invisible to Mancini this season and if the manager asks him to take his experience back onto Europe's highest stage for one more year then he will seek reassurances about being more fully occupied. It is conceivable that the final fling will be in the United States, with Thierry Henry – though it is with Robert Pires rather than the new hero of the New York Red Bulls that he has remained in closest contact since those Arsenal days. He and Pires both retain homes in Hampstead and will sometimes breakfast or lunch together.
Vieira was not signed, in January last year, to be the player we saw at Arsenal. He had already adapted his game, just as his old foe Roy Keane did, when the legs became a little more leaden and games could not always be bent to his will. He arrived to the sound of doubts from two of his former Arsenal team-mates Lee Dixon and Nigel Winterburn that he had any more to offer. And though he responded with typical elegance, there has been something more ponderous about his reactions. Even when he scored twice in the FA Cup fourth-round replay against Notts County, Paul Ince's side had seemed to have his measure. He suffers against sides who play at a fast tempo.
The passing is still there, though – the ball which set up Emmanuel Adebayor's goal against Bolton at Eastlands last year will live in the mind for a while – and then, in the 5-0 home defeat of Sunderland 39 days ago came a manifestation of the more intangible benefits he brings to the dressing room. City were 3-0 up and cruising when Vieira scored from Aleksandar Kolarov's cross and was mobbed in a way which even surpassed the players' unmitigated glee at Nigel de Jong's first City goal against West Ham at the start of the month. Such are Vieira's incalculable benefits to a team's esprit de corps.
Those assets, just as much as his playing talents, were what so nearly persuaded Arsène Wenger to bring him back to north London the summer before he left Milan for City. Vieira did not earn a call-up to the 2010 French World Cup squad because Raymond Domenech was irritated to hear that he had told one of the coaching staff that he wanted to join Henry in the pantheon of players who played four tournaments. The coach believed his players should want to be there only for the team. But the farce which engulfed Domenech's side in South Africa would not have occurred with Vieira around. The midfielder was deeply scarred by his omission, incidentally.
His role as a de facto leader of Mancini's band has never been more obvious than in the way he has heeded the manager's entreaty to take Mario Balotelli under his wing. There was a rather touching scene at Manchester's St Ann's Hospice last week when a rather reluctant Balotelli was coaxed into his first group press appearance by Vieira, "my brother... and my father" as the young striker described him that day. Mancini and Wenger both see a coach for the future in him.
There is a sense that the Balotelli generation is not part of the football world as he has known it, though. In a revealing recent interview Vieira lamented the decline in the number of genuinely talented players on show and the remorseless rise of the oversized, over-powerful athlete. "The game is faster than it used to be. People are running quicker and jumping higher," he said. "There are fewer good players and more athletes. Can you tell me where the next Paul Scholes is? At Arsenal, Jack Wilshere is a brainy football player with good ability and a really exciting future. But there is more emphasis on fitness and less on technical ability. There are fewer players with flair like Bergkamp or Giggs."
Since Arsenal's first Double in 1997-98, Vieira has – 1999 apart – won at least one major trophy every single year, with either club or country. And so it may be that Vieira, already deeply occupied by off-field charitable interests, sees helping City end their 35-year drought on Saturday as the perfect way to sign off. "Will I [head] back to France?" he said recently. "Probably not. A mid-table team in England? I can't see it. It would not be a problem for me to stop tomorrow because I have been lucky enough to experience everything."
Bayern await – who City could face just to qualify for the Champions League proper
It has taken three seasons and £350m to propel Manchester City into the Champions League, but it could all be over in 180 minutes come August. City have so far actually only clinched a place in the final qualifying round, and as it stands they could face four-time European Cup winners Bayern Munich in that eliminator. Defeat would condemn them to the Europa League again. Even if City avoid Bayern they could find such dangerous opposition as Lyons, Benfica or Villarreal.
That quartet, and Dynamo Kiev, are in line to be seeded for the 10-team "non-champions" section of the fourth qualifying round, which City will be in. Last season Seville and Sampdoria were both knocked out at this stage, which is why Arsène Wenger has been impressing on his Arsenal team the need to ensure they finish at least third this season.
Arsenal will be seeded should City overtake them as Wenger's team are sixth in the co-efficient ranking (which is based on five years' results) Uefa use for seeding. City are 42nd and will only be seeded if two of Benfica, Dynamo Kiev and Ajax, who enter at the third qualifying round, are knocked out. Failing that they may hope Bayern finish second in the Bundesliga and so qualify for the group stages. For that to happen, Bayern must beat Stuttgart on Saturday while Bayer Leverkusen, whose manager Jupp Heynckes take over at Bayern next season, lose at Frieburg.
- More about:
- Ars And #232;ne Wenger
- Bayern Munich
- FC Bayern
- French Football
- Manchester City
- Premier League