Jason Burt: Wenger's new matadors taunt the ageing bull

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The Independent Football

The sky was threatening enough - steel grey over north London - but Patrick Vieira, on his return, simply was not. The stadium announcer got the issue of his return over with quickly last night, bidding him "welcome", and there was brief, polite applause.

But the underlying inference of all the pre-match eulogies from Arsène Wenger was that, in truth, Juventus were indeed welcome to him, especially as Arsenal pocketed almost £14m after having squeezed nine years' service and 409 appearances out of his 6ft 4in frame. It also, as Wenger has stated, allowed Cesc Fabregas his head.

Indeed, Vieira's return was quickly reduced to an unlamented sideshow and so, when proceedings began, was he. Bypassed by the slick passing and eager running of Jose Antonio Reyes and Fabregas, the apprentice turned successor, the 29-year-old simply appeared off the pace demanded by Wenger from his young charges.

"This guy was a massive influence on English football because for years and years every team wanted to find their Patrick Vieira," Wenger said in his programme notes, but the most telling deduction from his comment was that those years were decidedly gone.

As the momentum of Arsenal's passing movements increased, the man memorably described by his former team-mate Lauren as the "lungs" of the side was struggling to catch his breath. Thierry Henry, his friend and successor as captain, stood in front of him like a matador before an ageing bull. Henry whisked the ball away.

In a precursor to the goal Fabregas also left his former mentor in his wake, dragging a shot wide, and then, after the young Spaniard had brought Vieira down there were profuse apologies.

But, when Vieira got to his feet there were also, unmistakably, boos from the Clock End when he regained possession. Hardly profuse but they were, nevertheless, detectable.

Henry had declared "the love the Arsenal fans have for Patrick Vieira is above even a Champions' League quarter-final" but, nothing personal, that was an unsustainable hope. This is a tie, and a trophy, that Arsenal are desperate to win and Henry's words may say as much about the affection he hopes to receive, should he depart, as anything else.

Despite his presence, Vieira has also always been a player more complicated than he appeared and also one prone to self-doubt. Indeed, after a forceful few months with the Bianconeri, in which he was crowned the "Master of Midfield" by the Italian media, his star has faded.

A persistent groin injury has not helped his cause but last night it was the peripheral Vieira, a figure seen increasingly at Highbury before he left, rather than the warrior-like totemic presence of old. His form, he said, has been "up and down". Last night the curve sloped away again.

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