Whether Your name is Beckham, Vieira or Veron, this has been an awkward summer to be a world-class midfielder at Highbury or Old Trafford. Two have gone, but yesterday's announcement by Patrick Vieira that he hopes to conclude a new contract early next week should send Arsenal to Cardiff for tomorrow's Community Shield in better heart than Manchester United.
It is, naturally, not quite this simple. In seemingly every close season the great Frenchman has flirted with the door that leads out of Highbury's marble halls and yesterday Vieira was still teasing. Yes, the "money part of the deal has already been settled", but the Arsenal captain was also in philosophical mood, reflecting that if he were to leave: "Arsenal would still be Arsenal. Players come and players leave but a club goes on." Words that would not soothe supporters who believe that should he force Arsenal to sell him by refusing to renew a contract which has less than a year to run, it would end any hopes they might have of shifting the balance of power in English football.
The odds must be that when Vieira meets the Arsenal chairman, Peter Hill-Wood, he will extend his seven-year stay at a club whose finances have been stretched perhaps beyond repair by Arsenal's insistence in moving to a new stadium in Islington.
Vieira reiterated his disappointment that his manager, Arsène Wenger, had been able to make only one major signing, bringing in Jens Lehmann from Borussia Dortmund to replace David Seaman in goal, adding: "I want to stay because I am assured that we have the expectation to win more trophies." Tomorrow's Community Shield would be considered by Vieira to be a bauble rather than a trophy, although should Wenger beat Sir Alex Ferguson's Manchester United for the 10th time in 20 encounters, it would reinforce his belief, vehemently expressed as the title was snatched away, that Arsenal were still the Premiership's best team.
Both Ferguson and Vieira, men who understand each other's bitter will to win, each stated that despite Chelsea's vast expenditure, the real battle will be the old one between Highbury and Old Trafford. "It will not be easy for them replacing players like [David] Beckham and [Juan Sebastian] Veron but I don't see them being any less strong," Vieira argued. "We were not far away from them last season and could easily have won the Double again. Maybe we lost a bit of momentum and concentration near the end. Maybe that is part of our game we have to improve."
At United's training complex at Carrington, Ferguson agreed. "You have to say that Arsenal are the main challengers because they are a team that has won the championship but you have to think that the players Chelsea have bought, added to last year's squad, minus [Graeme] Le Saux, gives them an edge."
Tomorrow's game matters more to Arsenal, who had to make do with "only the FA Cup" and have a point to prove. Ferguson remarked that he had lost this trophy "four or five times" with the kind of casualness he would not reserve even for a League Cup. The Liverpool manager, Gérard Houllier, incidentally, always counts the Shield among the trophies he has brought to Anfield in a way that neither Wenger nor Ferguson, men who have secured English football's big prize, would.
But for their weary, desultory performance in Lisbon which finished with most of United's players crawling into bed at 6am on Thursday morning after an interminable wait for their luggage at Manchester Airport, this has been as smooth a pre-season as Ferguson could have wanted on the pitch. Victories over Celtic, Juventus and Barcelona are not to be ignored and may, Ferguson hopes, prevent United suffering their habitual poor start to the Premiership.
Naturally, and contrary to the opinion of the vast majority of United fans, the manager did not believe the sale of Beckham and Veron had weakened his hand. On the contrary, it was stronger. "I may not be forced to field a different team. The team that beat Newcastle, that drew at Arsenal, that beat Liverpool, is still here." It was the team with Ole Gunnar Solskjaer on the right, Beckham on the bench and Veron on the treatment table. The profits United had made on Beckham counted for nothing when Chelsea made their offer. Even a fee of half the £28m they had paid Lazio was too good to reject in these deflated times, especially when it meant United would no longer be paying the Argentinian's vast wages.
Ferguson, who has defended Veron sometimes beyond the bounds of logic, even when the player himself has admitted to being below par, was asked to sum up his contribution at Old Trafford. "He was capable of exceptional football but he found the Premier Division a bit difficult and a bit strong for him." This is hardly the epitaph you would write for Vieira.
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