James Lawton: Vieira fleeing the real battlefield

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It is the way football works now and we know the formula by heart. The agent lays down a barrage of innuendo and rumour, makes the relevant phone calls, and then there is the player, the guardian of a million dreams, explaining why he has to go.

It is the way football works now and we know the formula by heart. The agent lays down a barrage of innuendo and rumour, makes the relevant phone calls, and then there is the player, the guardian of a million dreams, explaining why he has to go.

It is for nothing so crass as money, of course. It is fulfilment, a new edge in a new world. Almost everybody does it, sooner or later, and, in the case of Patrick Vieira, it has for least a year or so been something waiting to happen. It's true that he signed a four-year contract not so long ago but what is a contract when a star has to breathe, has to strike out for a new challenge?

However, there is maybe another question. When does a "challenge" become an act of disloyalty, an ingrate refusal to acknowledge, for example, the kind of debt Vieira owes to Arsène Wenger? At Highbury the view is surprisingly tolerant, at least anywhere beyond the stern gaze of Wenger.

No doubt there will be some ritual boos if the big man appears for Real Madrid against the team whose very heart and sinew he has come to represent over the last eight years, but then the prevailing view of the Islington chattering classes is that Vieira has discharged all debts.

For once, they are saying, a player is talking about reaching out for new horizons in a way that doesn't make the stomach squirm.

Not as it did when Sol Campbell, having talked endlessly of his love of Spurs, moved down the road to Arsenal. Or when Steven Gerrard, having urged Michael Owen to sign his life away to a club who had signally failed to understand and nurture his unique ability to score goals, suddenly said yes to the bank roll of Chelsea. What was the challenge there for the player who said that Anfield was engraved on his heart? It was hard to see beyond a total immersion in a Russian gravy boat.

That decision was revoked under a wave of Merseyside emotion - and rumours of physical threats to the player's family - but now Gerrard, in his enthusiasm for the new manager, Rafael Benitez, has taken more than one opportunity to disparage the work of Gérard Houllier, a man who a few months ago was publicly assured of his young captain's undying support. In today's football, loyalty is not so much a moveable feast as a convenience snack.

However, Vieira is certainly no Nicolas Anelka. Wenger's genius for restoring morale, and delving down for the best of a young player, has never been more spectacularly rewarded than when he rescued the failing Vieira from Serie A. He will make roughly the same profit on the midfielder as he did from the pouting Anelka, a staggering bonus when you consider the eight years of superb service he has received. If Thierry Henry has been the perfect artistic expression of the coach's flair, Vieira is surely his definitive piece of work, just as the signing of Roy Keane was the foundation stone of Sir Alex Ferguson's empire at Old Trafford.

Inevitably, the names of Vieira and Keane are linked because on the battlefields of the Premiership they stand so far above all their contemporaries. In his prime, Keane was quicker to the ball and the tackle, more overtly commanding in his style. Vieira was physically imposing to a huge degree, of course, and more imaginative and skilful on the ball. It was no surprise when Ferguson, worried about the waning powers of Keane, turned instinctively, and quite brazenly, in the direction of the Frenchman. Certainly, no one could doubt that the United manager's recent public flirtation with Gerrard would have been much less passionate if he had not known that Vieira was, finally, beyond his reach

We can only guess at the dismay of Wenger as the Real deal unfolded before his disbelieving eyes.

Unlike Ferguson, Wenger has still to reach the mountain top of European football, and in the wake of Vieira he must wonder if he will ever again have quite the chemistry which was working so beautifully last season right up to the moment of the Champions' League defeat by Chelsea. He had nurtured the big man to the prime of his career, and sometimes to a ludicrous degree. Remember Vieira's turbulent arrival in English football, how he went through a phase of kicking everything that moved only to hear his manager say that if referees were not more tolerant, and the opposition did not work so assiduously to make his life difficult, the young Frenchman might well pack his bags and go home? That, said Wenger, would have been a disaster for Premiership football. Of course, he meant it would have been a savage blow for Arsenal, and now, with a move to Spain seeming inevitable, there is no question that he was right.

Wenger's pain is palpable now because of the sense that the job is unfinished and that without Vieira it will be that much more difficult. Arsenal's last sublime championship win was a huge blow to the confidence of Ferguson's club because it presented a superb dimension, a quality of football that went beyond the mere winning of matches. It was about style and belief and at one point Wenger said: "Sometimes a relationship is formed between players which a coach is wise to let develop on its own. My players have reached a point now where their feelings for each other are instinctive and run very deep."

But when Wenger said that the goal of European triumph was still firmly in place, and no one could doubt that as far as he was concerned it was always going to be the ultimate imprimatur of success. With Vieira on the field, more than anyone else, the dream lived vividly, as it did when Keane drove United to semi-final victory over Juventus in Turin in 1999. No one, not even Vieira, had influenced a big match so profoundly. Keane acquired the yellow card that would rule him out of the final, but that mishap only increased his intensity. He was more than the leader of his team. He was both its soul and its conscience.

Such, we can be sure, was the role earmarked by Wenger for Vieira as he moved into his late twenties. It is one which we have to say did not involve the coach in any excessive presumption. Who, after all, had brought Vieira to that level of mature excellence where he could be seen as a power and an influence so much bigger than the sum of his different parts.

It may be that Vieira would have found his way out of those unpromising beginnings in the Italian game. His talent is self-evident, and so, mostly, is the ferocity of his competitive nature. He can also say that he has paid a whole series of dividends on the coach's investment. At his best he, like the young Keane, is a force of nature. But perhaps where he loses some of his admirers is in his talk of the "challenge" of Real Madrid.

Real, under the new and no doubt uncompromising coaching of Jose Antonio Camacho, is more an opportunity than a challenge, and here Vieira can claim that in a short professional life he has earned the right to take it. Certainly we know that his value to the most glamorous club in all of football is about real, hard achievement and not the kind of galactico froth that in the case of the embattled Dave Beckham was skimmed away so brusquely in the action of La Liga. So maybe Vieira would be wise to talk of such realities - and claim, reasonably, that he has earned the right to shape his own destiny.

That is an arguable point, and one that is guaranteed respect by Vieira's meaning in the game. However, he should not delude himself on one point. The great challenge of his career was never in adding to the glory of the most successful club in European football. It was in finishing the job at Arsenal, the club he has helped to within touching distance of the stars. That was the chance he had as he moved into the prime of his career and said, in the way of football, how much he loved Arsenal.

Wenger is keeping his deepest thoughts to himself as he attempts to fill the void left by his greatest player, and most rounded piece of work. Maniche Ribeiro, the fine Portuguese player, is thought to be the coach's prime candidate, but you know it will not be quite the same. Everyone knows the ability of Maniche. For quite a long time, Vieira's was Wenger's most dazzling secret. Deep down, you know he must feel betrayed.