Arsenal fear the abyss beyond Pires peak

Champions' League: The genius of France gave Highbury a glory night, but now the FA will act over the gory days
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The Independent Online

Rarely does a football crowd disgorge so light-headedly and so sated from a stadium as they did from Highbury on Wednesday night. Old Trafford regulars may beg to differ, but there is not a more intuitive trio at present thanles trois mousquetaires, Thierry Henry, Robert Pires and Patrick Vieira (and it would be churlish to forget Sylvain Wiltord) – all precise thrust and timely parry when required. Then there is Dennis Bergkamp, he of such moody magnificence, and Sol Campbell and Igors Stepanovs, splendid examples of obdurate defending.

This week, in the 4-1 eclipse of Bayer Leverkusen, we witnessed the beautiful side of Arsenal, beginning and ending with exquisite goals from Pires and Bergkamp. Next week, we examine the club's dark side once more with an away fixture on possible hostile territory at an FA hearing on Tuesday, followed by another the following Wednesday. Sins committed nearly three months ago are about to return to haunt them.

Perhaps only now will Thierry Henry, in the midst of a personal duel with Ruud van Nistelrooy for the prize of Mr Prolific, not to mention Footballer of the Year, rue that ridiculous rant against referee Graham Poll after the home defeat by Newcastle in mid-December.

The striker, who following Wednesday's contribution boasted 28 goals, faces the possibility of a lengthy ban on Tuesday. He will almost certainly miss Arsenal's FA Cup quarter-final at Newcastle next Saturday. Eight days later, Vieira, something of a recidivist, must answer a charge that he elbowed Chelsea's Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink in the Boxing Day derby.

As if Arsène Wenger is not confronted with sufficient selection dilemmas because of injuries, which, among other effects, have eliminated all his naturally left-footed performers, it is now likely that he will have to pursue the championship and FA Cup deprived of his match-winners.

Whatever his public posturings, in Henry's case apparently defending the indefensible, one can only assume that in private the Arsenal manager administered a sound verbal chastisement. Because, when all the arguments about Arsenal's ill-discipline have been thoroughly aired, the repercussions are that a team who are prime championship challengers and potential FA Cup finalists could be found seriously wanting at precisely the wrong moment.

Campbell, who, it appears, can scarcely believe the sublime quality of the play ahead of him, will not be alone at Highbury in pleading that the FA take a charitable stance. "I hope they won't get penalised at all if some people can just be a little bit intelligent and look at the situation, and give them the benefit of doubt," he said, alluding to the FA arbiters. "If you lose any quality players for a length of time, it's going to be a blow, but we can rejig things and get it going again. This squad is more than enough to cope with all competitions."

But is it? Certainly, apart from a couple of aberrations against Gillingham in the FA Cup, the rearguard have remained remarkably composed in the last month, when they have been without Ashley Cole, Martin Keown and Matthew Upson, and with Tony Adams making only a rare appearance in the FA Cup tie against the Gills. Though Stepanovs cost £1m from Skonto Riga, he might have been considered a last resort. In fact, the Latvian has been something of a revelation in central defence. "That's the thing about Arsenal at the moment. No matter who goes out there now, everybody seems to be performing," added his partner, Campbell.

However, it remains to be seen whether the midfield and forward departments can withstand such a similar depletion of forces as the loss of Henry and Vieira would enforce. Wednesday night's performance clearly emphasised that. "It's fantastic really, when everyone's inter-changing passes," said Campbell, a man who has one of the best views in the house. "Thierry, Robert, Sylvain and Dennis, too. Everybody's up there working well, it's nice," he said. "It's good to have options and the more options you've got the more problems you give to other teams."

Pires' contribution has been such that, if there was any justice, he, too, would be a contender for the writers' prize, the Footballer of the Year, or the footballers' honour, the Player of the Year.

As his compatriot Henry maintains, the midfielder initially had to claim his predecessor Marc Overmars' affection among the Arsenal followers. Ten goals and a sequence of breathtaking displays this season have reduced the Dutchman to just a fond memory and have fully vindicated Wenger's faith in Pires. "Robert's pace and skill and eye for goal are always going to frighten defenders," said Campbell. "And he's got energy to burn."

The Frenchman's early opening goal, the culmination of a confident surging run from a ball laid on by Vieira, served to break the concentration as well as the hearts of the Bundesliga leaders. Victory over Deportivo La Coruña on Tuesday week will virtually ensure Arsenal's progress into the Champions' League quarter-finals. "I feel good," said Pires. "The manager and the players have faith in me and it's been a great season, but it's not finished. It's true that Patrick, me and Thierry are the three musketeers [he smiles at this description] but, of course, there's always Sylvain as well. It's good between us and what we're trying to do is to influence all our other team-mates to play with one or two touches. That's good for Arsenal because our game is quick."

The fact that Henry and Pires have already committed their futures to the club could be a telling factor in Vieira's decision as the might of Spain and Italy clamour for his signature at the end of the season. The scorer of Arsenal's third goal is not merely a crucial performer, but a cohesive influence off the pitch.

"Patrick, Thierry, Sylvain and me are close," said Pires. "I've known Patrick for eight years now. For us, he's also very important outside football. He knows London very well, and where to go out. But as far as his future is concerned it's his decision, not ours. Of course, it would be great if he stays. But you know he's been here six years already and so, whatever he decides, we will respect it."

He added: "Patrick is so important to the team. He gives us rhythm, his positional play is excellent and he always makes a good pass. He's intelligent and he's the soul of the team. When he's not playing well the team are not playing well."

Such sentiments explain just why much off-field activity in the next few weeks will be vital to Arsenal's cause as they fight to keep their French triumvirate intact.

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