One man is smiling, Ashley - and it's Gallas

French defender regarded by many Chelsea fans as their best player last season is hoping for similar status at his new club Arsenal
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The Independent Football

There is only one thing more striking about William Gallas in the last week than seeing him in the red and white of Arsenal rather than Chelsea blue. And that's him smiling and appearing relaxed.

"Look at me on the pitch and I'm smiling all the time," the 29-year-old defender says of his first two appearances for his new club. "If I smile then it is OK." The vexed issue - overblown in the saga that became his depart-ure from Stamford Bridge - of where exactly he was to play in the team is no longer a concern.

Being switched from right-back to central defence - his preferred position - to left-back became, for Gallas, just one more reason to believe he was under-valued by the Premiership champions. But he did want to play one role, consistently, and be regarded as the best in it.

At Arsenal he is, for now and for the next six weeks at least, at left-back following Ashley Cole's departure, injury to Gaël Clichy and, a more recent event, Mathieu Flamini's extraordinary declaration to Arsène Wenger that he does not want to play there any more.

Gallas has no such qualms, partly because he has been assured by Wenger that, when everyone is fit, he will be given the opportunity to partner Kolo Touré at the heart of the defence. It will be some combination; their pace alone will be daunting to rivals.

On Wednesday night in Hamburg, during Arsenal's 2-1 victory in the opening Champions' League game in Group G, Gallas moved into the middle when the Ivorian went off injured after just half an hour and eased his defensive partner, Johan Djourou, through the evening. Today, against Manchester United at Old Trafford, Gallas is expected back on the flank.

"It does not matter," he shrugs. "I try to help my team. We have some injured players and, at the moment, I play left-back. I think it's very important to help the team. When I was at Chelsea it was the same, always the same."

That version of events has been hotly - bitterly - disputed by his former employers who, of course, issued the most stunning of statements following Gallas's departure, accusing him of threatening to score an own goal if he was forced to stay and effectively going on strike.

Speaking for the first time since arriving at Arsenal as the makeweight, plus £5 million, in the transfer deadline-day deal to take Cole in the opposite direction, Gallas is, naturally, keen not to dwell on the saga. He prefers to answer questions by talking about the "positives" surrounding his new club.

"It's different because they are so young," he says of an Arsenal team where, along with Gilberto Silva, he is one of the two oldest outfield players. "But I can tell you they play well. One, two touch. It's fantastic, you know. It's almost unbelievable. I'm now with them and I see that they like to train, like to play and enjoy it. It's very important."

That sense of enjoyment was certainly not evident in Cole's outbursts in his autobiography, the lamely titled My Defence, in which he questions everything, from team spirit to work ethic to playing ability, concerning his now former colleagues. It is not, Gallas says, a topic he is aware has been discussed in the Arsenal dressing room.

Gallas's own departure from Chelsea, despite the club's allegations, was regretted by the players. They knew his worth, with the captain, John Terry, and Claude Makelele in particular upset that he left. The manager, Jose Mourinho, wavered bet-ween a determination to keep him, because he knew how difficult he would be to replace, and a resolve to try to teach him a lesson by making him see out the final year of his contract in the reserves.

Gallas had decided he wanted to leave some time ago, and he insists it was not just about money (although he was one of Chelsea's lowest-paid players). After five years in England he dreamed of going to Spain or Italy - he believes that is where the best defenders are tested - but is now delighted to be at Arsenal, especially as his friend Thierry Henry worked hard to make sure the deal went through.

Henry was missing in midweek with a foot injury he picked up while playing for France the week before. "I asked him if he will be there on Sunday and he said, 'Yes'," Gallas says. "We need all our big players for that game." However, Henry's chances of playing looked slim.

The rivalry between Arsenal and United has even more resonance than the one with Chelsea, of course, with the animosity between Wenger and Sir Alex Ferguson and, two seasons ago, the infamous "Pizzagate" incident as related by Cole in his book.

"Man U are a good team who play well, so it will be very important for us to try to win," Gallas says. "If you want to win the Premier League it is a game you have to win. And I think on Sunday we are going to win. I just feel good about the victory. We have a good team, play very well and will have a lot of oppor-tunities to score while playing strong in defence.

"We have only two points [in the League] so I hope that, on Sunday, we have five points. But everyone knows it will be difficult. I respect Man U because they are strong. We are strong as well, so we will see. But me, I go there to win."

Arsenal are still searching for a first Premiership victory of the season, but Gallas brushes aside the concerns even though, if they lose today, they would be a daunting 13 points behind United. "Because I think this season the Premier League will be difficult," he says. "It will not be easy to win every game. You have Chelsea, Liverpool, you have Man U, Arsenal, Tottenham. And it's not easy against other teams as well. I think, this season, the top team will have 80 points, no more."

Last season Chelsea scorched their rivals with 91 points - and that after easing up in their final two games, which they lost - with Gallas regarded by many supporters as the club's best player. It is a mantle he will, at Arsenal, struggle to wrestle from Henry. But, with a smile on his face, that suits him fine.