Loss of Vieira will present Wenger with greatest test

As he peered from beneath his overgrown mop-top the verdict of the European Player of the Year was unequivocal. "With [Walter] Samuel and [Patrick] Vieira, Real Madrid will be frightening... with those footballers they will be a complete team," he said.

Thiswas not Vieira's friend and prospective team-mate Zinedine Zidane speaking - the man Vieira calls the "best of the best" and someone who has aided his Bernabeu courtship - but Pavel Nedved. The Juventus midfielder may well be right. The two players, one in defence, the other in midfield, should give Madrid the backbone they have so clearly lacked.

What that means for the balance of European football is already exercising coaches and boardrooms in Turin and beyond, but nowhere more so than at Highbury. If Vieira completes the Madrid jigsaw - then does his departure ruin the picture at Arsenal? The club have been asset-stripped before but somehow, right now, this feels like a different kind of business.

George Graham, Arsenal's most successful manager in recent times before Arsène Wenger, rightly points out that there were similar worries when Nicolas Anelka, Marc Overmars and Vieira's former midfield partner, Emmanuel Petit, all left - only for a stronger, more attractive and even more phenomenally successful team to emerge.

And there are those who cling to the statistics that show that Arsenal's ratio of victories has not registered a blip in Vieira's absences - through injury and suspension - over the past couple of years. They lost just one of the 12 games he missed last season. In recent times the team also coped serenely with the retirement of their peerless defence. Furthermore, there is the jibe, from his long-time rival Roy Keane, that Vieira has a habit of going missing in the big games, especially in Europe.

That may well be, although clearly one of Vieira's motives for a move is the thought that he has a better opportunity of winning the European Cup with Madrid than he does with Arsenal. That will hurt Wenger, especially as he was his first major signing, a gangly, uncut force eight years ago, for £3.5m from Milan - but not as much as the aching absence that will be felt at the heart of the team if Vieira goes. But, above all, Wenger will be acutely aware what message Vieira's departure would send both inside and outside the Arsenal camp.

He is that rare breed of player who has an effect by simply being there. That's why, against his instincts, Wenger has patched him up and pushed him on to the field of play when, at times, he has been barely half-fit and his dynamism has been dimmed. He is, and not just because of his imposing 6ft 4in frame, a totemic rallying point. Vieira has the lot: energy, fearlessness, flair, fight, an ability to control a game and, now, maturity. The Senegalese-born Frenchman is the epitome of the modern-day midfielder.

The captaincy, also, has grown on him and Vieira, who leads by example more than by exhortation, has provided ballast at times of need. He organises team-bonding lunches at which attendance is expected to be, and usually is, 100 per cent. One of his many nicknames is "Octopus" - so deep has he reached into the club's fabric.

Giving him the armband after Tony Adams was a typically shrewd Wenger move especially as the courtship from Madrid began, as early as 2001. Every summer Vieira was going and there have been suggestions from within the camp that he does not have the same feel for Arsenal as Thierry Henry. Despite Wenger's patronage, Vieira is more his own man.

And yet, amid overtures last year from Madrid, he signed a new lucrative contract last summer committing himself to Arsenal until 2007. Towards the end of last season he was professing how contented he was with life, how settled he was with his English partner and his home in Hampstead.

Scepticism remained as to whether Vieira was truly committed, although by signing the contract he ensured, as apparently he was keen to do, that Arsenal would secure a big fee if Madrid came calling again. It is the only club he would have left for and he instantly dismissed the overtures from Chelsea last season.

In these - bar Abramovich - straitened times, £23m for a 28-year-old may appear reasonable money even if Vieira is a year younger, and far more influential, than David Beckham who last summer cost £2m more. He does not have Beckham's commercial appeal, but neither has he sought it.

"Maybe he's looked and thought 'I'm going to get one chance in my life to move away from Arsenal'," said the agent and former player Barry Silkman yesterday. "He'll never get another move like it." His theory appears correct, although he adds: "I've only ever seen two players who are irreplaceable - that's Dave Mackay at Tottenham and George Best." Vieira, he said, is almost in that class - but if anyone can find a substitute it is Wenger.

"It will be almost impossible," says the former Arsenal captain Frank McLintock. Arsenal fans will hope the key word there is "almost".

CAPTAIN FANTASTIC'S HIGHBURY CAREER

Born Dakar, Senegal, 23 June 1976.

Joined Arsenal 14 Aug 1996 from Milan for £3.5m.

Arsenal debut v Sheffield Wednesday (Premier League) at Highbury, 16 Sept 1996, won 4-1.

Total Arsenal appearances/goals 371/27.

Trophies won with Arsenal Premiership champions 1997-98, 2001-02, 2003-04; FA Cup winners 1998, 2002, 2003.

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