Pires: Why Europe suits Arsenal's new dimension

Highbury's D'Artagnan has message for Vieira as musketeers look forward to reunion
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The Independent Online

They were the three musketeers, swashbuckling their way through English football for five seasons, sharing the Footballer of the Year title for three years in succession and helping Arsenal mop up two championships and three FA Cups. Along the way there were more than 250 goals between them - 50 a season - many of which were things of beauty and a joy forever.

But even as the club's supporters bask in the glow of vintage performances against Fulham and Real Madrid in the past eight days, it is necessary to contemplate the possibility that by the start of next season Thierry Henry and Robert Pires - who will both soon be out of contract - could, like Patrick Vieira, be unsheathing their swords in another country. It was an obvious topic for an audience with Pires on Friday, minutes after the Champions' League draw had confirmed that Vieira would be returning with Juventus for one final battle at Highbury. The questions had to be asked; first, however, a gentler lead-in, and reflection on the rout of Real over two thrilling encounters.

"Through the Champions' League run we've shown an interesting side to our game, because we're not conceding many goals," Pires said. "We showed that again against one of the best teams in the world and if we want to make it all the way to the final, we have to keep that going. Now we're afraid of no one."

Pires's disappointment at appearing only as a substitute in each leg was eased by the result, and would have been forgotten completely had his shot from the halfway line with the goalkeeper stranded not been caught at the last moment by Roberto Carlos's sprint: "It was his fault, he was too quick! It was a real pity, because if the ball had gone in it would have been a fantastic finish to a great move. The images would have gone all round the world."

Close as he is to Henry, Pires struggles for new adjectives in any language to describe his captain's performance. "All the superlatives have already been used. Thierry proved yet again he's a great player and we always need players of that stature. Will he leave? Honestly I don't know. He genuinely wants to stay because he's happy here, there's a new stadium arriving, the supporters love him. But we must give him the opportunity to decide what he wants to do."

And so to Vieira, whose name was on every lip at the training ground once Friday's draw was made. "It's 14 years since we first played together, for the French youth team. I still phone him, or he calls me, and he's well, enjoying it [in Italy]. He's someone who is always ready to help his team-mates, whether for France or his club. He's very generous like that, it's something he does better than anyone, and you can even see it when he plays for Juventus. Of course I was disappointed when he left, but you have to accept certain decisions have to be made. He wanted to go down another road and it was the road to Turin."

It may be too simplistic to say the Champions' League will determine whether either Henry or Pires remains at Arsenal. But Vieira's success abroad means that the Continental grass could well look green-er if the new pitch at Ashburton Grove is going to host nothing better than Uefa Cup football next season. Two games against Juventus are assuming an awful lot of significance. "The game against Liverpool [today] is vital and we're going to fight all the way for fourth place in the Premiership, but let's be clear, the main objective is the Champions' League. We'll do everything we can to win it and we're capable, because we're becom-ing more experienced and taking on a new dimension. It's a young team, but in Europe anything's possible."

In part that is because it has become clear that playing European opposition suits Arsenal better than being roughed up in the Premier-ship. As Arsène Wenger put it on Friday: "For a while there was the word going round that to beat Arsenal, you kick them and play long-ball." The manager believes his charges are becoming better equipped to cope with it, though that remains unproven.

Six years on, Pires - nicknamed "D'Artagnan" by Tony Adams on his arrival in London - can still recall the culture clash of his first Premiership game, a defeat at Sunderland in which Vieira was sent off. "I got a shock. You have to be on the pitch to know quite what it's like. When you travel to places like Bolton and Blackburn they don't give you an inch. So it's not easy to stick at it and make it in this country, the adaptation period is difficult. It made me stronger, doing things I didn't like doing in France, like being physical and tackling. When we play Champions' League football it's completely different. You have time on the ball, space to play and the referees are severe, so it's a type of football that suits us. That's why Arsenal have two faces this year, the pretty Champions' League face and the slightly uglier one in the Premier League."

Initially dismissed in some quarters as a lightweight and a diver (he still insists the controversial tumble against Ports-mouth at Highbury was a legitimate penalty), Pires had won over sufficient detractors to be named Footballer of the Year in his second season - truncated as it was by the knee injury that kept him out of the 2002 World Cup. As well as taking part in some of the most delicious passing moves with Henry and Co, he has been a consistent goal-scorer from midfield, but at 32 now finds the younger generation threatening his place: Jose Antonio Reyes and Cesc Fabregas have played more games this season, Alexander Hleb and Abou Diaby are coming on.

A difficult decision looms, assuming the club stick to their principle of offering only one-year contracts to players over 30. Pires is at present holding out for two years, but you sense that he does not expect an exception to be made: "It's very simple. Arsenal have offered me one year and it's now a period of reflection in which I'm looking to see what happens with Arsenal and if they really believe in me. All I want is to play against Liverpool and in every remaining game this season. But before the end of the season I'll make a decision. I love London and Arsenal and won't forget what the club have given me and allowed me to win. Robert Pires is happy in London, for sure."

With or without Thierry, D'Artagnan may still be swashbuckling for a while yet.