Gilberto geared for his big senior moment

The big kick-off: With the valued Vieira bond broken, the onus falls on the young Gunners and their mature minder
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The Independent Football

Now Vieira is preparing for the new season in Turin, Edu in Valencia. Only Gilberto of the exotic triumvirate remains, and how he responds to the added responsibility of replacing absent friends will help determine whether the club can make a serious challenge either domestically or in Europe.

Mathieu Flamini, 21, and the 18-year-old prodigy Cesc Fabregas made a remarkably high total of 78 appearances between them last season, but will need the solid presence behind them of Gilberto, "the invisible wall" as he was dubbed by the Brazilians, if they are to start more often.

The reason the youngsters were called upon so much was the fractured vertebra Gilberto suffered at the start of last season, which would eventually cost him six months out of the game, causing some to question whether the absence would be permanent. Happily it was not, though the impression is that any such trauma would have been treated more philosophically by the cerebral 28-year-old than most.

This after all, is a man who gave up professional football almost before he had started at the age of 16, to return home to a small town by the Amazon and support his seriously ill mother by working in a quarry and then a sweet factory. So taking the likes of Flamini and Fabregas under his wing and accepting greater responsibility on his shoulders ought not to be the burden it might have been for more self-obsessed footballers.

"I am without some good friends," he admitted. "I'll miss them, but I need to get it on. This season will be one of the hardest since I came to the club. It's a big responsibility because I'm the oldest in my position, but it doesn't matter who I play with, they are good players. Of course they're young, but they've shown how good they are.

"We'll need to improve much more. In my opinion it will be much more difficult this season for us because we miss some important players and experienced players, and the other clubs have bought good players. But we still have a good team with experienced players."

Gilberto's actual playing style will not change, he believes; his job will still be to protect the back four like a more elegant Claude Makelele, win the ball and give it to one of the side's more progressive attacking players, of whom, he points out, many remain: "The group is strong. We lost Patrick and Edu in the same position, but the other positions are the same."

It may also be that Robert Pires, told by the manager that he cannot leave now Vieira has gone, starts some games in the centre, with Jose Antonio Reyes, another of the younger brigade, out on the left. Alexander Hleb, from Stuttgart, is an equally positive option and can also play wide. Today's Community Shield game against Chelsea may not give the best indication of Arsène Wenger's thinking, partly because Gilberto is a little behind the other players in terms of fitness after being given time off following Brazil's successful Confederations' Cup campaign.

The manager, meanwhile, is trying to convince everyone inside and outside the club that there is life after Vieira, first employing the argument the team played some outstanding football when he was injured 12 months ago: "It's all doom and gloom because we have lost Patrick, but one year ago everybody was thinking only about Arsenal. We started the season without Patrick Vieira and without Alexander Hleb, who we did not have, and everybody was thinking Arsenal would win the championship again."

The second plank to his case is that loss brings people closer together: "I had to sit down with the players and explain to them what happened, that a big player has left. They lost a big friend, he was loved in the dressing room. But the magic of football is that sometimes it shakes a team up, you have to stick together more. And that's what we have to do.

"I once sold a great player, Franck Sauzée, from Monaco to Marseille, the day before the championship started. The night before, he was in the line-up and the tactical [preparation], and the next day we won 4-1 without him. Either we take it as a challenge to be stronger as a team or we say one of our best players is gone and we have no chance. Let's come together and show our strength and be stronger as a unit. That is happening, because we have a good spirit.

"Patrick is a big name, we lost a big name. But when he came here he had no name, nobody knew him. What is good in football is that everybody beforehand has no name but is still a good player, and I think I have players who are not as big a name but they can make a name because they have the quality."

What, though, of the leadership on the pitch that Vieira provided? Challenged as to where that quality would materialise from, Wenger defiantly ran through a list of experienced players from goalkeeper to striker, using all five digits on both hands. His Brazilian World Cup winner was, inevitably, among them. The Vieira bond, slowly loosened with each successive tug from abroad, has finally been broken. How well Arsenal cope without it will soon be made much clearer.