Vieira and Arsenal strive to satisfy mutual need

Charlton Athletic 1 - Arsenal 3
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The Independent Football

There is a school of thought that Patrick Vieira has come back to form this new year on a mission to save Arsenal's Premiership title - and, at The Valley on Saturday, the faithful gave thanks many times over. They had plenty of others to praise for another win, but it was their captain who left the pitch to the sound of his name being chanted again and again.

Afterwards, it took no prompting for Thierry Henry to tell us that his old friend has become the mainstay of Arsenal's revival. That the "stick" Vieira has taken of late - and there is no keener eye for written criticism than Henry - is undeserved for a player who is "the best in the business". "When Patrick is playing like that it's unbelievable because he does give you a lift," Henry said. "Give the guy the credit he deserves."

It's an interesting plea from the one man who really has done more than any other for Arsenal's cause in the last three years. But the question that Highbury regulars should perhaps be asking at this stage of the season is, exactly who is rescuing whom? Has Vieira, impressive though he was against Fulham, Newcastle and Charlton, saved Arsenal or, after another summer of whispered trysts with Real Madrid, have Arsenal actually saved him?

Let's be straight on one thing: Vieira would have joined Real last summer if the money had been right. He was offered a deal somewhere below the £119,000-a-week jackpot that those absurdly titled galacticos take home and refused on a question of pride. He returned to Arsenal - 28-years-old, forlorn and injured - to tell the supporters he would not wish to be anywhere else.

Which turned out to be true when you consider that, had Vieira gone to Real, he would already have been making the acquaintance of a third new coach. That, even if his presence had changed things slightly, he would still be much further behind the Primera Liga's leaders Barcelona than the five points by which Arsenal trail Chelsea. He would also have been part of a Real squad as radically divided by competing egos as, we are told, Arsenal's is united by its many component parts.

He may have given his best years to Arsenal, but Vieira can consider himself a fortunate man. Fortunate to have a manager in Arsène Wenger who is smart enough to understand that, for many footballers, loyalty is not unconditional. "He had done eight years at the club and did wonder for a while whether it was time to move," Wenger said. "We have to accept that. He is human after all."

Vieira is also fortunate to have a team-mate in Henry whose support never has to be begged. The Arsenal striker has an earnestness about him that is hard to get beyond at times, but when he talks, as he has recently, about the value of winning his club's first European Cup, rather than another's 10th, he makes sense. A place at Real could, of course, be Henry's for the asking but he has not wavered. It is enough to make you hope that, secretly, he has only scorn for the preposterous strategy of superstar-accumulation that has proved such a failure at the Bernabeu.

The laurels for Vieira on Saturday were for winning a midfield battle with the tenacious Danny Murphy, who was Charlton's best player just ahead of Talal El Karkouri. The centre-back, the club's top goalscorer with four, struck a 30-yard free-kick in first half injury-time that faded beautifully inside Manuel Almunia's post to level the score at 1-1.

Arsenal had taken the lead through a goal made by Vieira down the left on 35 minutes. He collected possession from Robin van Persie, crept to the byline and cut the ball back to Freddie Ljungberg, who turned to poke home a shot from close range.

Wenger remonstrated with the referee Mark Halsey at half-time over the award of the free-kick for El Karkouri's goal and Alan Curbishley felt equally unhappy about Arsenal's second, three minutes after the break. The Charlton manager claimed that, as Arsenal advanced, Henry and Van Persie were in offside positions - albeit the kind now categorised as "passive". "There are moves afoot among managers to get this rule changed," Curbishley said. "How can you play offside these days?" Van Persie found Cesc Fabregas whose backheel to Ljungberg was dispatched past Dean Kiely.

No complaints about the third, which started with a mistake by Jonathan Fortune that allowed Van Persie in to finish. Wenger's main worry now will be the fitness of Sol Campbell who came off with an ankle injury and is a doubt for tomorrow's visit of Manchester City. It's times like these that Arsenal need Vieira almost as much as he needs them.

Goals: Ljungberg (35) 0-1; El Karkouri (45) 1-1; Ljungberg (48) 1-2; Van Persie (67) 1-3.

Charlton Athletic (4-5-1): Kiely; Young, El Karkouri, Fortune, Hreidarsson; Rommedahl, Murphy, Kishishev (Euell, 63), Holland, Thomas (Konchesky, 63); Bartlett (Johansson, 75). Substitutes not used: Andersen (gk), Hughes.

Arsenal (4-4-2): Almunia; Hoyte, Campbell (Senderos, 82), Touré, Cole; Ljungberg (Pennant, 85), Vieira, Fabregas, Clichy; Henry, Van Persie (Pires, 71). Substitutes not used: Lehmann (gk), Larsson.

Referee: M Halsey (Lancashire).

Booked: Charlton Thomas; Arsenal Cole.

Man of the match: Vieira.

Attendance: 26,711.