Gilberto provides the Silva lining to Arsenal's winter of frustration

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The Independent Online

Many a truth emerges from an observation expressed in jest. What could Arsène Wenger have been alluding to when, apropos of nothing really, he opined that Gilberto Silva "could be the next manager of Brazil... just after England beat them in the World Cup final in 2006"? Presumably it conveyed much of the Arsenal manager's appreciation of his midfielder's cerebral qualities. In doing so, Wenger also provoked the question of what effect on Arsenal's season the long-term absence of the 28-year-old World Cup winner has made.

Many a truth emerges from an observation expressed in jest. What could Arsène Wenger have been alluding to when, apropos of nothing really, he opined that Gilberto Silva "could be the next manager of Brazil... just after England beat them in the World Cup final in 2006"? Presumably it conveyed much of the Arsenal manager's appreciation of his midfielder's cerebral qualities. In doing so, Wenger also provoked the question of what effect on Arsenal's season the long-term absence of the 28-year-old World Cup winner has made.

A facile and superficial portrayal of the Gunners is that of a team whose fortunes are determined principally by the presence and form of Thierry Henry, Patrick Vieira and Robert Pires, yet it is players like Gilberto who, albeit rather more discreetly, frequently have as much, if not greater, influence.

As much as he displays the elegance we expect from his countrymen, loping like a leopard in midfield with as sharp an eye on his prey, the Brazilian has rarely exuded that attacking predisposition we expect from the nation that produced Ronaldinho and Ronaldo and is so extravagantly endowed with natural talent. The mandolin-playing Gilberto (he is learning the instrument) does not so much pluck the strings in the Arsenal midfield as provide the solid backing rhythm to the man who does, Vieira. It explains why, in Brazil, he is known as the "Invisible Wall", a player who is an almost unseen protector of his rearguard.

His manager encapsulates the value that Gilberto offers his team as "tactical stability". Wenger adds: "He holds back and reads the game well. You have two types of players: ones who when you lose the ball look to others to come back, and the ones who don't even think about anyone else and just straight away try to help out - and he's one of those."

Like Chelsea's Claude Makelele, with whom he is often compared, such a performer is often only truly appreciated by a club's followers when he is missing - as he was for six months of the season, after fracturing a vertebra in his spine, the result of a kick in the season's opening Premiership game, against Everton.

What the impact was on the Gunners' subsequent failure to reclaim the championship, and on their Champions' League elimination, is difficult to evaluate, although the statistics suggest it was critical. The player himself cannot recall ever being on a losing side against Manchester United.

How significant was it that United's Premiership double this season over Arsenal took place in Gilberto's absence? What will it mean to Arsenal's attempt to wrest the FA Cup from the holders in the latest renewal of a rivalry frequently decorated by rancour? "It's been very frustrating, because I could not help the team," Gilberto says. "The injury was so serious, many people thought that I would not recover from it. I never agreed with them. In my mind, I always believed I would come through it. I was always positive."

He actually continued that afternoon, and played a further five full matches, but his condition deteriorated. Finally he was sent back to Brazil, to his home town of Lagoa de Prata, for three months. He had to wear a brace around his torso and was ordered to rest completely.

"I was with my wife and family. I went to the park and watched the children play, and I did not think about football at all," he says. "I just concentrated on recovering. I could see Arsenal's games on television, but I only saw one or two maximum. I didn't want to watch, because I really wanted to play, but couldn't. When they lost or drew, I thought, 'Maybe if I was there I could help them'."

There was to be no gentle return to the team, however. Chelsea's Frank Lampard and Liverpool's Steven Gerrard have been among the opponents he has confronted. It certainly won't be a matter of Friends Re-United at the Millennium Stadium, either; not if his counterpart Roy Keane has any say in the matter. "I think I help the team with my experience," Gilberto says. "The young players [including Cesc Fabregas, Robin van Persie and Jose Antonio Reyes] have done very well, but they have a lot of pressure on their shoulders. Players like me, and Patrick Vieira, Thierry Henry and Sol Campbell, should be able to handle that. I like this kind of situation when I have a big challenge in the team."

It has been a gradual recuperation, both physically and psychologically. Wenger was asked whether Gilberto had completely overcome the injury. "It is not behind him," the Frenchman retorted pointedly. Gilberto concedes that he has experienced some trepidation. "In my first two or three games back, I felt a bit scared," he says. "Now I don't do anything stupid. I try just to take the ball and pass to one of my team-mates."

A physical, maybe over-physical, contest may be unavoidable on Saturday, though, given the "pizza wars" aftermath of the Old Trafford contest last October and last season's contretemps at the final whistle there, with Arsenal's players baiting Ruud van Nistelrooy. The fact that neither club have won a trophy this season will only add to the potentially combustible atmosphere.

"I don't think that will happen," says Gilberto. "It has been a frustrating season. Like us, Manchester United didn't win the championship, and didn't progress in the Champions' League. But both teams like to play football. We don't think about what has happened before this season. We need to forget that, and just think about our game."

He adds: "Tackling is part of the game, and there will be hard challenges, but all the players need to respect each other. It's a final and we know we will have a lot of passion. But there is no need to fight anyone else; we just need to fight for our team, and enjoy the game."

And none will be striving more to do so than the tall Brazilian, whose mere presence could just prove inspirational.

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