Season hanging on the rock of Highbury

Nick Townsend says the resilience of Vieira is vital to Arsenal's ambitions
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The Independent Football

You didn't have to be Wordsworth to appreciate the poetic justice of Edmilson's equaliser at Highbury on Wednesday night; what was a little harder to accept was the identity of the rather leaden-footed Arsenal culprit as Lyon's Brazilian rose to release that booming last-minute header past David Seaman which damned the Gunners to a somewhat perilous conclusion to the Champions' League second group phase.

You didn't have to be Wordsworth to appreciate the poetic justice of Edmilson's equaliser at Highbury on Wednesday night; what was a little harder to accept was the identity of the rather leaden-footed Arsenal culprit as Lyon's Brazilian rose to release that booming last-minute header past David Seaman which damned the Gunners to a somewhat perilous conclusion to the Champions' League second group phase.

Castigate him, as managers (Chelsea's Claudio Ranieiri, for one) are liable to; curse him, as opposing players (such as Dennis Wise) are apt to, or condemn him, as pundits tend to because of his occasional excesses, but Patrick Vieira was the last man to meritignominy at the culmination of a night during which he had afforded ample protection to the unusual formation behind him - centre-backs Gilles Grimandi and Oleg Luzhny flanked by Lee Dixon and the commendably mature Ashley Cole.

With Vieira's counterpart at Old Trafford, Roy Keane, similarly left to rue a belated equaliser - from the unwitting foot of Wes Brown - after a Herculean display in apallid team performance, the importance of those two players, who meet this afternoon in the Premiership, was never more graphically illustrated.

The dropped points were indeed disappointing from an English perspective. Yet it could have been worse. With Arsenal and United resembling labouring limousines, the proposition might be offered that those two dynamos ensured that their teams garnered a point apiece. Despite Tuesday, United remain Group A favourites to reach the quarter-finals, while in Group C, if Arsenal beat Spartak Moscow at home on Tuesday week, Lyon cannot afford to drop any points in their final two games.

At Old Trafford, that temple of expectancy where United tend to be unconvincing in Europe, Valencia possessed too much panache and were simply too well orchestrated by their Argentinian coach, Hector Cúper, to provide United with easy pickings. Down in north London, Arsÿne Wenger attributed his team's jettisoning of their advantage to sheer fatigue after the FA Cup tie against Chelsea, while his players maintained they failed because of a belief that the points were theirs once Dennis Bergkamp had scored a splendid goal, having created the chance with a manifestly illegal challenge on Edmilson.

As Fredrik Ljungberg said: "We did look tired in the second half. But we felt that, in the Champions' League, 1-0 is enough. You have the three points. In your mind, you think that's OK. Maybe, mentally, we dropped back a bit too much." Perhaps it was the "Highbury factor", and (speaking as one of the few never persuaded by that argument) Arsenal were, in fact, better off playing at Wembley...

What was incontrovertible, however, was the reinforcement provided to his rearguard by that patrolling enforcer, Vieira. The Arsenal faithful may thrill to his surging sorties into the heart of the opposition, but on nights like Wednesday they are more appreciative of the responsibility the resilient Frenchman assumes in supplementing his defence with those trademark spidery-legged interventions. Typical was the moment in the later minutes when, after a rare Arsenal assault, Vieira diligently chased the impish substitute Vikash Dhorasoo to submission deep into his own half.

Vieira's chagrin at being partly culpable for Edmilson's equaliser at the death was understandable. With the injured Tony Adams and Martin Keown forced to witness events from the stands, Vieira's presence is all the more crucial from a defensive standpoint (it also, incidentally, confirms how much Arsenal miss his former midfield partner, Emmanuel Petit).

It makes the gladiatorial aspect of today's collision with Keane all the more compelling on an afternoon when United will either assert their championship supremacy, or Arsenal will wrest a degree of optimism. "The gap is 13 points now, which is a little bit humiliating, to be honest," reflected Ljungberg, who scored on his Arsenal debut against United in 1998. "But that does not show the real difference in quality between the teams."

His fellow midfielder, Robert Pires, who fashioned the opening for Bergkamp on Wednesday, said: "Mathematically, nothing is resolved yet. Two years ago, Arsenal pulled Manchester United back when there was a 12-point deficit. If it happens once, it can happen again. We believe we can do it because there is a strong spirit here."

He added: "As long as they're not champions we'll fight to the end. The difference was in November and December, when we went through a bad spell. Otherwise, we have nothing to be afraid of, and we have already beaten United once [at Highbury] this season.

"Much will depend on who wins the key areas. Vieira against Keane will be important; so will [Jaap] Stam against [Thierry] Henry. For myself, I have always been impressed by Paul Scholes. He plays simple football, but he is always running, and is available to his team-mates to offer solutions. He's got a good brain and he's a very dynamic player. It will be important for us to stop him."

As Wenger formulates a defence to achieve that, he is unlikely to overlook the 20-year-old Cole, who has found himself a fixture in Arsenal's last seven games, during which they have conceded only two goals. The composed way in which the left-back extricated himself from pressure situations was remarkable against Lyon, yet he concedes: "I still get butterflies before games, so much so that I feel a little bit sick, and I'm even nervous before training. I'm still very much in awe of my team-mates."

Perhaps someone should tell him that as a player already in England coach Sven Goran Eriksson's thoughts, his elders are equally admiring of him. If they aren't, they certainly should be.

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