Pires pays tribute to Arsenal fans as he joins Villarreal

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The Independent Football

Robert Pires has finally ended his six-year association with Arsenal and joined the Spanish side Villarreal.

The French midfielder, a World Cup winner in 1998, had hoped to extend his stay as the Gunners prepare for a new era at the Emirates Stadium, but wanted a longer deal than the 12-month extension on offer.

Pires, 32, made 284 appearances for Arsenal, scoring 84 goals, following his £6m move from Marseilles in 2000, when he also won the European Championship with Les Bleus.

The Football Writers' Player of the Year in 2002 helped Arsène Wenger's side to two League titles and two FA Cups. However, his last Arsenal appearance ended in disappointment when he was substituted after 20 minutes of the Champions' League final against Barcelona in Paris after the dismissal of the goalkeeper Jens Lehmann.

Pires will remember Highbury fondly. He said: "After six wonderful years at Arsenal, full of fantastic moments, I have decided to accept a new challenge at Villarreal for the next two years of my career. I am very grateful to Arsène Wenger, the players and all the fans for their amazing support over the years."

However, Wenger, whothis week signed the Czech Republic international midfielder Tomas Rosicky, 25, knows his squad will be poorer for Pires's departure.

He said: "Robert has had six tremendous years with us and made a huge contribution to the team's success during his time here. He is not only a great footballer but a good man, so of course, we are sad to see him go.

"It is difficult to pick out one or two highlights - but he was superb in our Double-winning season during the 2001-02 campaign and contributed so hugely to our unbeaten season with 19 goals. I would like to thank Robert for the dedication, determination and passion he has shown and wish him well in his career."