The Premiership Interview: Highbury's Silva lining

Patrick Vieira's departure offers Gilberto Silva the chance to command the Arsenal midfield. As he prepares to play Chelsea tomorrow, the thoughtful Brazilian talks to Sam Wallace about closing the gap at the top, Robinho ... and playing the mandolin

It is in that north London suburb that this 28-year-old international midfielder now lives contentedly with his family, a shy, serious man, with a deep feeling for the responsibility of his job and a real affinity for the club he serves. He spends his time looking after his children, strumming on his mandolin and, following this month's sale of Patrick Vieira to Juventus, contemplating a new role as the senior man in an Arsenal midfield that is increasingly reliant on the young and inexperienced players of the club's future.

Tomorrow will be the first serious test for Arsenal's life beyond Vieira and no one knows better than their Brazilian midfielder that it is an opportunity to strike a mighty blow against the cult of success that Jose Mourinho has built up at Chelsea. He may be a World Cup winner, but Gilberto is still a footballer who has the Arsène Wenger identity: thoughtful, ambitious and with a hard edge. He has been toughened by a childhood that was not spent in academies or summer soccer schools but working to support a family in factory and quarry jobs that few of his new neighbours in Enfield would contemplate, let alone the average Premiership footballer.

It was back to Minas Gerais that he headed last season to recover from a back injury that, at one point, threatened his career and has meant the loss of his place in the Brazil team. For much of that time in convalescence he was strapped into a back support but the evidence is that this graceful, delicate midfield enforcer has made a full recovery and will prove a decisive influence come tomorrow afternoon.

"A win at Stamford Bridge would be fantastic because Chelsea are unbeaten there for a long time," he said. "A lot of people have said Arsenal are not going to be the same without Patrick. We know how good he was for the team but now we have to play without him and I think on Sunday it is a good opportunity to prove we are still strong, the team are a unit and that we are ready for the Premiership.

"People have seen Patrick in the team for so long and it was a very difficult decision for the manager to sell him. I think he was under pressure to make a decision but all the players support the manager in what he did because he knows what he is doing for the club. The club has changed a lot since he has been here, and he is very experienced. Of course we miss Patrick because he is a fantastic player and a fantastic person but now we need to look forward because life continues.

"It's different with Thierry [Henry as captain] because he commands the team in a different way. Patrick has been here since I arrived and I think Thierry will be different, but he knows how to do it and he has played under many captains. Patrick commanded the team in the dressing-room and talked to the players - if anyone had a doubt he would talk to them and gee them up. But Thierry doesn't need to do it alone, the experienced players are here to help."

There would have been a good chance that, if Wenger had his way last month, Enfield would have been home to two Brazilian families rather than one and Julio Baptista would have been lining up for Arsenal tomorrow. It is a source of regret to Gilberto that he was not able to persuade his friend and international team-mate to choose Highbury over Real Madrid this summer and he does not try to hide his concern at the relative inactivity of his club in the transfer market. "I spoke to Arsène and he really wanted to bring him to the club - I don't know exactly what happened and why he decided to stay in Spain," he said. "Maybe Madrid came first, but when I said to him that Arsenal were interested in him he was very happy. I don't know exactly what happened when Arsenal came to talk to him and his agent.

"He's a good player. If the club had bought him he was going to be in as a striker, I think, from speaking to Arsène. It was a big miss but now we need to continue and forget about that. I think Arsenal will find some other player in the future.

"I'm not disappointed [with the transfers in], that's not the right word, but if you see what other teams did to improve their teams and get stronger compared to our club we have just signed Alexander Hleb [from Stuttgart], Alex Song - and some young players. I think the manager knows what he is doing. At the moment we understand the situation at the club because we have a new stadium, but for the next year that is - maybe - fine. From what I know from Arsène the club will sign if it is necessary for a certain position."

There is every reason for the club to want to offer Gilberto some reassurance over their future as they try to persuade him to extend a deal that runs until next summer. He has settled in England like few other Brazilians, his command of the language is superb and he remains sanguine about the amount of days that this British summer might extend to - although when we meet the damp outside offers little cause for optimism. "It's not good today but this is the summer and it has been OK recently," he says, "And I still have my holidays in Brazil and the beach.

"We are still talking [about his future] but I want to stay at the club. They know what I want and it's good that they have ambitions for the team to win something more. That's why I want to stay: because they want to win more titles. I am also very happy here. I don't need to move. I am settled, the team is very good and I am playing at a big club with experienced players. I don't think it will be difficult to sign a new contract."

If he does end his days playing for Arsenal, then the club will be witness to one of the last professional careers that began the way so many did before the advent of the modern footballer: with a manual labouring job and a hard dose of the real world. Gilberto's life story is well-known but the stints he did in a sweet factory and a quarry to earn money for his family who were nursing his sick mother could almost belong to some sepia-tinted English tradition of the great amateur sportsman. It interrupted his career in his teenage years and he finally made his mark with Atletico Mineiro, whom Arsenal paid £4.5m for him in 2002.

He describes his childhood in Usina Luciania as a dream - "I had no responsibility in my life, I played football on the street with cousins and friends, and we never had any contact with drugs or violence" - and at 12 he moved to the nearby Lagoa de Prata to play football. It was around then that his mother was ill and he had to stop playing for the local side Americas in order to work. His late development meant that he only forced his way into the Brazil team at the 2002 World Cup when Emerson was injured.

Gilberto is the patron of a charity that offers support for the homeless as well as giving them a chance to participate in organised football and he has attempted to stay in touch with his native culture by, against all the odds, finding a Brazilian mandolin tutor in Enfield. It is not a passion, he admits, that is shared by any of his team-mates and the roots of this particular hobby are, he adds with a flair for the English idiom, "a long story".

The shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes, the Brazilian electrician whom the Metropolitan Police killed after mistaking him for a suicide bomber in the aftermath of the 21 July terrorist attacks, has shocked Gilberto. Beyond the occasional mandolin lesson, he has little contact with the Brazilian expatriate community in London, but he said that the repercussions in his native country had been serious.

"It was a difficult situation for the police as well. What happened in England was terrible because the police don't know what might happen and they have to be aware all the time," he says. "It was a big, big mistake and the impact in Brazil was big. People were very shocked about what happened. Some were scared, not about what happened to the guy but especially about the terrorist attacks.

"The story about the police's mistake was in the Brazilian press and people were very shocked. But it's difficult because in one way you think about the family of the person who was shot dead, but also the police are concerned because they don't know when something might happen, where and who it will be. It's a terrible situation."

He was with his Brazilian team-mates this week in Split for their 1-1 draw with Croatia, the last game before they have the chance to seal World Cup qualification against Chile on 4 September. Pushed on whether the Brazilians ever discuss England as potential World Cup-winners he makes a convincing case for defending his new country's honour.

"Yes, honestly, they know about English players," he says, "and this last game [against Denmark] is not a reason to think your team is not good enough to win the World Cup."

There is bad news for Michael Owen and his future at Real Madrid, should he stay, when Gilberto is pushed on the talent of his international team-mate Robinho. Is Real's 21-year-old acquisition from Santos really as good as the hype suggests? The answer is a very serious affirmative and, momentarily, Gilberto's excellent vocabulary deserts him as he tries to describes the striker's attributes.

"He's an incredible player, in my opinion. It's difficult to describe but you never know what he's going to do with the ball," he says. "You have seen Ronaldinho? Now he's fantastic but Robinho plays in a different style. I think when he comes to Europe he needs to adapt. He needs to be a bit stronger because he's so thin. He needs to put on a bit of weight, but he's well set up to be a great player."

Until the summer, however, Gilberto will have to become accustomed to the role of the underdog that all of English football has been forced to accept under Chelsea's current dominance. It is not one that he finds daunting; in fact, the pressure that has been placed upon his club by the financial might of their local rivals is an adversity he treats with familiarity. "I like this challenge in my life because my life has always been a big challenge," he says, "and I think this is much, much easier than before."

When it comes to playing Chelsea, the opposition, he says, will have to do something different to beat them.

"We are ready to do that - to do something different and special," he adds, "to prove something to ourselves." If they achieve that over this season, and regain the Premiership title, there will not be quite the same sense of wonder as he experienced in his hometown three years ago, but the feat might just stand comparison.

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