The door to a new Arsenal team was opened, Arsène Wenger said yesterday, when Patrick Vieira walked out of the club last summer. A new generation, he said, has been given space to flourish but Wenger's radical theory on team-building will be given its ultimate test when the ghost of Arsenal past walks back into Highbury tonight in a Juventus shirt.
The last British club left standing in the Champions' League meet one of Europe's most illustrious club sides and yet one man, and one question, dominates tonight's quarter-final first leg. Was Wenger right to allow his captain of nine years to leave? And will the man who led Arsenal to three Premiership titles end his former club's interest in the only competition capable of rescuing their dreary season?
For those who would believe in the infallibility of the Arsenal manager's judgement it is a crucial moment. For Vieira, whose protracted departure from Arsenal over three summers began with Real Madrid and ended in Turin, the potential for embarrassment is enormous. He made it clear that leaving Highbury at the age of 29 was a decision based upon his ambition to win the European Cup: to discover by next Wednesday that Arsenal are better equipped to accomplish that than Juventus would be crushing.
There are other elements to this match that would, in other circumstances, catch the eye. Adrian Mutu, sacked by Chelsea for cocaine abuse 17 months ago, could have been forgiven for regarding his first return to England with some trepidation. As it turns out his presence on the left side of midfield for Juventus tonight will be a footnote to the battle that takes place 20 yards to his right where Vieira confronts his successor Cesc Fabregas.
Juventus do not lack for characters of interest. In attack for the Italians is Zlatan Ibrahimovic, the Sweden striker who could have such a serious bearing on England's World Cup destiny. And in the dug-out is Fabio Capello, one of the few foreigners with a prayer of succeeding Sven Goran Eriksson as manager of the England team. Arsenal have never reached a Champions' League semi-final. Yet all this will all play a supporting role tonight to the main attraction.
At Highbury last night, Vieira spoke briefly about his part in the history of the club he faces tonight. Uncomfortable and defensive, he insisted Arsenal were a closed chapter in his career. In contrast, Wenger was expansive, generous in the details of his relationship with the first player he ever signed at Arsenal and warm in his praise. The gamble of Vieira's sale appears to sit easily with the Arsenal manager, because of the part it has played in allowing him to build a new side.
"A lot of teams have good young players and at some stage they all arrive at the door," Wenger said. "If you do not open the door for them they stay behind the door. Patrick will always be a great player for us. Whether it was right to sell or not is not a question that haunts me at all. Fabregas was waiting for me to play him and if Patrick had not gone he would have waited another year or two.
"You make all kinds of considerations in a situation like that and in the end you have to make a decision. I feel the decision has been questioned enough since the start of the season... I feel that the club can be proud of the influence we had on Patrick's career." Translating the nine years Vieira spent at Arsenal into a working career outside football, Wenger estimated that the player had given him "45 to 50 years". They were Vieira's best years too - "nobody can get nine years out of him now," Wenger added. The five-year deal Vieira signed at Juventus is always raised by Wenger as a serious factor in his departure, as was the deal struck with Real the year before that collapsed over the player's salary. There was no malice from Wenger, just a conviction that it was time to let Vieira leave.
"I am very grateful for what this guy has done for the club," he said. "He has given us nine fantastic years and this guy had a fantastic influence on English football. We are grateful for that and now another generation has come behind and they need to show they are as good if not better. They need to take that."
That Arsenal generation will have to cope tonight without Sol Campbell, whose comeback has been delayed by a toe injury in training, and Freddie Ljungberg, who has a calf problem. Juventus will wait on the fitness of right-back Jonathan Zebina - if he is ruled out then Gianluca Zambrotta will switch from left-back and Giorgio Chiellini will take his place. The Italian club, Wenger said, rely "more upon efficiency than Real Madrid" - a feature that may not suit Arsenal.
The "complete model midfielder for this country" was how Wenger described his former player. "Even today," he added, "when somebody finds a good midfielder they say: 'I've found the new Patrick Vieira' and that sums it up well".Reuse content