History man who retains a sense of mystery

The matchwinner when Arsenal last lifted the Cup tells Sam Wallace how he is playing for his future today
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The Independent Football

Robert Pires was already heading towards the door when he decided to amend one of his last answers to the question of how best to improve Arsenal's potential in the Champions' League. The Frenchman had been through the problems, he had called upon the club to sign some experienced players and then just before he left he remembered one Arsenal transfer rumour that had caught his imagination. "Did you mention Beckham?" he asked, "yeah, why not?"

He might be 32, with the gauche demeanour of a diffident French exchange student, but on that evidence Pires is not worried about his place in the hierarchy of the Arsenal squad. He almost never lands a tackle, and he scampers rather than sprints down the wing, but the man whose profile does not seem to fit with English football is still going strong in his fifth season over here. Today will be his third FA Cup final for Arsenal and there will be few in his side better attuned to what it takes to beat Manchester United.

As he has managed for the last three seasons at Arsenal, Pires is in double figures for goals - 17, including two against Everton in the 7-0 thrashing this month - and today he looks likely to take up a role on the right wing with Jose Antonio Reyes on the left. It is not his favourite position - he prefers the left - but even the briefest of conversations with Pires will tell you that this is a man who does not spend too much time languishing in despair about the nuances of tactical detail.

He does not need to be persuaded that his side's performance against United at Highbury on 1 February was poor - "yes, I concede that" - and he is frank about his contract situation with Arsenal that looks like it could go to the very brink next year. His current deal runs out at the end of next season and, similar to the contract dispute fought and won by his opposite number today, Ryan Giggs, he would like a two-year extension rather than the one-year deal that Arsenal have offered him.

"I want to stay at Arsenal and I have given them my position which is that I would like to sign for two years," Pires said. "I have told Arsène Wenger and David Dein and now I will wait for their decision. I would like another two years to take me up to 2008. I would like to finish here. I have made my position clear.

"You never know in football and why they are reluctant to give me two or three years. You never know what might happen. Maybe the manager is not the only one who decides. Maybe the president of the club also makes the decision. I will talk to them again at the end of the season after the FA Cup final. I want to stay here."

There is much that makes Pires such an unlikely fit for English football, not least the fact that after five years in this country he still has not mastered the language to the extent that he will speak it in interviews. He has also suffered a rancorous falling out with the France national team coach, Raymond Domenech, that has seen him excluded from the side at a time when he should be one of its most senior, most influential, figures. But there is something about England that makes him stay and it has much to do with days like today.

"There's a big rivalry between the two clubs and it's the FA Cup final so it will be a very big football game," he says. "In the second half at Highbury [in February] they were better than us so we have to congratulate them on the victory. In the first game at Old Trafford [in October], I thought the game deserved to finish in a draw."

He is straightforward about the effect on Arsenal of 24 October 2004 - the day that the 49-game unbeaten Premiership run came to an end at Old Trafford with catastrophic consequences for the then champions. For a player who has won his share of dubious penalties, Pires is surprisingly cutting about the penalty Wayne Rooney won from Sol Campbell that was the turning point in United's 2-0 victory.

"Everyone saw that the TV pictures showed it wasn't a penalty and after that we suffered as a team because of that defeat and losing our record," Pires says. "It was really hard afterwards to accept that defeat and the refereeing decisions and for one month afterwards we struggled to recover after the defeat and accept it.

"I think that between that defeat and the victory at White Hart Lane is where we lost too many points and that is what lost us the title. We are not bitter today because we have to look forward. But after the game we were angry that we had lost and the way they had beaten us. Manchester United are always tough games and always really hard. But I don't agree that we are vulnerable physically."

Like Wenger, Pires says that an FA Cup semi-final against a combative Blackburn Rovers side in Cardiff last month was as good a preparation as any for today. Any comparison between United and Blackburn would enrage Sir Alex Ferguson, but Arsenal have reinvented themselves of late as a team that refuses to react. "I think we showed when they kicked us a lot that we could stay calm despite provocation," Pires says. "On Saturday we will stay calm again.

"What happened in the tunnel between Pat [Vieira], Roy Keane and Gary Neville wasn't a big thing. There's always a lot of tension in Manchester United and Arsenal games. The atmosphere was quite hot but I have played in those sort of games in France before. When I was at Marseilles, it was like that whenever we played against Monaco."

Pires is serious about the need to attract players to strengthen Arsenal's hand in the Champions' League next season - "It's a challenge and the club would need to invest in new players," he says, "we need to buy some new players for their experience" - but of greater importance will be his own future. Another match-winning Cup final performance like the one against Southampton two years ago would make him a difficult man to refuse.