Vieira move would strike at Arsenal's core

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If, as Robert Pires once remarked, Patrick Vieira is the "barometer" of the Arsenal dressing-room, then the outlook around Highbury is now distinctly unsettled.

Vieira has always been aware of his own worth. His time at Arsenal has been punctuated by threats to leave, usually to Madrid, a scenario he claimed would only be averted if the club proved they could compete in Europe. This time, more menacingly, he has done his talking in private.

"When you come from nothing, you want everything." Jose Antonio Reyes said when arriving at Highbury. If Vieira wants his slice of everything, playing alongside Zinedine Zidane, who recommended the move to Real Madrid, then the time is surely now.

He is 28, two years away from the birthday that marks a footballer as a veteran. He has been at Highbury for eight years, steered them to three championships and, quite frankly, owes them nothing.

His transfer, should it happen, will receive far less global attention than David Beckham's descent from the clouds over Madrid.

But Vieira is the player Florentino Perez should have bought in the summer of 2003, once he decided to let go of Fernando Hierro and Claude Makelele, the men who acted as minders to the beautiful football played by Raul, Zidane and Luis Figo.

Manchester United coped without Beckham. Yes, they could barely manage a decent free-kick but, fundamentally, they were the same side. However, Arsenal, freighted down by the debt of their move to the Ashburton Grove stadium and with a far thinner squad, would feel the loss of Vieira more keenly.

Neither Edu nor Gilberto Silva is in the same class as Vieira as a ball-winner, while Ray Parlour, whose reception from the stands post-divorce can only be imagined, has been told his contract will not be renewed.

But Arsène Wenger has sold pivotal players before. He transferred Marc Overmars and Emmanuel Petit to Barcelona in 2000 for a combined fee of £28m. Nicolas Anelka had gone to Real Madrid for £23m the previous summer. As they left, Thierry Henry and Robert Pires arrived seamlessly.

If Arsenal do receive £30m from Madrid for Vieira, there would be few better men in world football to spend it than Wenger, although it will be painfully hard to replace a man he regards almost paternalistically.

Owen Hargreaves, a potential replacement, is half the player Vieira is. For Hargreaves to pin down an England midfield containing Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard and Beckham as Vieira did in Lisbon last month would be unthinkable.

There is Emerson, provided he can be cured of the "depression" that the Brazilian claims has infected him since his transfer to Juventus broke down, and Real Sociedad's Xabi Alonso. But would either have that absolute desire to win a tackle that made Vieira the natural replacement to succeed Tony Adams as Arsenal captain ­ and which in Adams' opinion marked him out from Petit, who did not?

There were also good reasons why Wenger made those sales. Petit was being worn down by a long-standing knee injury and his ability to impose himself in midfield was waning. Overmars was showing signs of picking his games, especially away from Highbury, Anelka was just too much of a pain in the Arsenal.

Roy Keane said of Eric Cantona that however revered he was at Old Trafford, he could not think of a single European match the Frenchman had turned.

You could not quite make the same charge against Vieira. Myles Palmer, whose book, The Professor, can be counted the definitive study of the Wenger years, points to a game against Deportivo La Coruña, "where Vieira knew the game was up and was humbled by a player, Mauro Silva, who was almost old enough to be his father." However, that has to be balanced by his heroic attempts to drag Arsenal into the European Cup semi-finals against Chelsea.

However well he played, that match was pivotal for Vieira. Had they won, only Monaco and Porto would have stood between Arsenal and a European Cup. Their chance may not come again but Madrid's will.

Curiously, Cantona decided to leave Manchester United after a similar experience, losing the 1997 European Cup semi-final to Borussia Dortmund. United, he reasoned, would never again come this close and the lights went out in his eyes. But the irony was, Cantona was wrong.

VIEIRA COMPARED

ARSENAL

With Vieira

Win ratio: 61 per cent

Points per game: 2.10 (80 points per season)

Without Vieira

Win ratio: 54 per cent

Points per game: 1.90 (72 points per season)

MANCHESTER UNITED

With Keane

Win ratio: 64 per cent

Points per game: 2.16 (82 points per season)

Without Keane

Win ratio: 58 per cent

Points per game: 1.96 (74 points per season)

LIVERPOOL

With Gerrard

Win ratio: 49 per cent

Points per game: 1.75 (67 points per season).

Without Gerrard

Win ratio: 59 per cent

Points per game: 1.96 (74 points per season)

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