Touchpaper lit as Vieira and Keane rouse themselves for final collision

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Patrick Vieira smiles broadly the moment the name Roy Keane is mentioned. "I don't mind at all," the Arsenal captain says almost before the question as to whether he is prepared for a confrontation between the two at Saturday's FA Cup final has been completed.

Patrick Vieira smiles broadly the moment the name Roy Keane is mentioned. "I don't mind at all," the Arsenal captain says almost before the question as to whether he is prepared for a confrontation between the two at Saturday's FA Cup final has been completed.

"You always enjoy playing against the big players and he is one of the big players in this country and, of course, it's exciting," Vieira said, the smile cheekily spreading further across his face. As exciting and incendiary as the events of the evening of 1 February, when the two captains verbally clashed in the tunnel prior to the Premiership match at Highbury.

During that exchange, Keane questioned Vieira's attitude towards his birthplace, Senegal. Earlier this week, Vieira responded - asking what right did Keane have to criticise after walking out on the Republic of Ireland's 2002 World Cup campaign? Yesterday, Vieira emphatically stood by his comments, asking "Is that not true?" Of course it is. "Then thank you," he continued.

The touchpaper has been lit. His intent was clear. If there was to be any attempt by Manchester United or their captain to stare him or his team down then he was going to challenge it. "He's hard," Vieira said of Keane. "But Steven Gerrard is the same as well. There are a few players who are like that who are quite strong and are good players." There was also an unambiguous message for Arsenal. This summer, Vieira pledged, there would be no prevarication as to whether he was staying or going. "Exactly," he said when asked if he wanted to end the continuous talk of Real Madrid which has occurred over the last four years.

"Firstly I have two years left on my contract," said Vieira, 28, who has spent nine years at Highbury, after moving from Milan. "And secondly I believe we have not really achieved what we can do as a team. I believe that the team can do much better with the way we play and the quality of the young players coming through. The next three or four years will be really important and I want to be part of it." Those years will include the last at Highbury, before the move to a new stadium and Vieira knows he has a key role to play in that transition and the growth of players such as Cesc Fabregas and Jose Antonio Reyes.

The latter has been the victim of United's perceived rough-house tactics in recent contests. The accusation is that the Spanish international has been targeted and wasn't able to withstand that. Vieira was adamant that even if that is the case, his team-mate is prepared this time. "He's ready for it," Vieira stated. "This is his first season in the Premiership and you learn a lot. He can't wait for Saturday."

Neither can his captain, despite the persistent ankle injury which has hampered a season in which he admits his performance levels have dropped. "I don't think I was near to my best," Vieira said. In himself he is happier, more content. He is also, temperamentally, better equipped than ever, citing his ability not to react to Blackburn Rovers' aggressive tactics in the cup semi-final as compelling evidence. Four or five years ago, Vieira would have retaliated and been sent off, said Arsenal manager Arsène Wenger.

"You learn a lot from your mistakes and of course I did make mistakes over the years and I learned from it," Vieira said of the nine red cards he has received at Arsenal. "Being captain of the club gives me more responsibility and the way I behave as a captain is really important. It's why I am more careful now in the way that I react." He believes he is still targeted. "Yes, I think so," Vieira added. "But I take it in the right way. They do it because of the way I am playing. It's more a compliment than anything."

There will be few of those passed on Saturday and Vieira knows exactly how high the stakes are for both teams. "Man Utd is like Arsenal," he said. "Both are big clubs and every year the club wants to win trophies." There is, nevertheless, a fundamental difference. "I think we have played fantastic football," Vieira said. "Better than last year. We have taken it to another level. That's why we deserve to win a trophy."

Last season was when Arsenal constructed their fabulous unbeaten sequence - a run which notoriously ended, after 49 League matches, last autumn at Old Trafford. That was hard to take. And not just because it was United who inflicted it. "We were in a position in which when we went onto the pitch, our belief and our confidence was so high and of course you go on to the pitch knowing that you will win the game," Vieira said. Losing shattered that confidence. "We took time to respond. We took time to win games and of course that's why we lost the plot to retain the championship. We took too long to get back into it. Sometimes in football you find yourself in this position and you cannot explain. It's difficult."

As was the February defeat at Highbury, after that tunnel spat, which stretched United's unbeaten run over Arsenal in competitive matches to seven. If Vieira can claim "luck" has been on United's side in some of those contests and that "small decisions make a big difference", he also concedes "at Highbury, yes, they were much better than us. They were really strong and really composed as a team and deserved to win the game. But we will be waiting on Saturday. Don't worry."

Vieira said he "doesn't know" what to expect from United this time round. If there's aggression then that's "part of the game and we will expect that. It's the way we take it and the way we respond which will be important". He added: "We have a good answer because we are not afraid of playing against Man Utd or against other teams. What is really important for us is play our own game with the ball on the floor and, with our passing, we will have a good chance to beat them."

* The latest instalment of the Keane versus Vieira rivalry had its roots in their altercation in the Highbury tunnel before their clubs met on 1 February. As Keane emerged from the dressing-room, he heard Vieira confront his teammate Gary Neville. "Don't think you're going to kick us off the park like you did before," Vieira said.

"Vieira [was] getting right into Gary [Neville] again - I mean physically as well," Keane recalled afterwards. "I just said 'That's it, I'm not having this.' That sort of behaviour I won't tolerate. Patrick Vieira is 6 foot 4, and he starts having a go at Gary, so I said: 'Come on have a go at me'... They think Gary is an easy target and I'm not having it."

Keane then decided to strike the psychological blow against the French international, who has started a charity aimed at helping the less advantaged in his native Senegal. Why didn't Vieira play for Senegal then, rather than his adopted country, Keane wanted to know.

Recalling the moment, Keane said: "It makes me laugh, players going on about how they are saving this country and saving that country, but when they have the opportunity to play..."

TV cameras picked up the interchange just as the referee intervened, and Keane said: "I'll see you out on the pitch. Don't shout your f****** mouth off. Mind your own business. You're supposed to be the nice guy."

Immediately after the game Vieira defended himself saying: "I think Gary Neville is a big boy and can stand up for himself. I didn't try to offend anyone, but I don't really want to talk about it." Until this week that is, when Vieira retorted: "For someone who leaves his team in the World Cup, I think he should keep this kind of remark to himself. He walked away from his national team when they really needed him. He does not know my background. I have nothing to prove to him. He is not from Senegal. He is not from Africa. He will not understand."