Vieira must find old fire for Arsenal to survive

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The Independent Online

Arsenal finally reached the last four in Europe's premier competition this week and their manager, Arsène Wenger, and the captain, Patrick Vieira, were quick to compliment the Arsenal Ladies on their progress in the Uefa Women's Cup. The prospects of the men emulating the distaff side, and finally reaching the semi-finals of the Uefa Champions' League, receded, however, with Tuesday night's failure to defeat Panathinaikos.

Arsenal finally reached the last four in Europe's premier competition this week and their manager, Arsène Wenger, and the captain, Patrick Vieira, were quick to compliment the Arsenal Ladies on their progress in the Uefa Women's Cup. The prospects of the men emulating the distaff side, and finally reaching the semi-finals of the Uefa Champions' League, receded, however, with Tuesday night's failure to defeat Panathinaikos.

For many Arsenal supporters one of the worrying aspects of the night was Vieira's failure, not for the first time this season, to impose himself. Pre-season it seemed Arsenal were to suffer a devastating blow as Vieira flirted with a move to Real Madrid. He eventually stayed at Highbury, declaring he could not bring himself to leave, but has so far been overshadowed by his midfield partners, Edu and, extraordinarily, the 17-year-old Cesc Fabregas.

Vieira is still a formidable opponent, but is not dominating matches the way Arsenal supporters have come to expect. Few could argue that Frank Lampard, who once said Vieira set the standard he aspired to, is not at present London's most potent midfielder.

Though the circumstances are vile it may be to Arsenal's benefit that Vieira will not lack for motivation when the club visit Eindhoven later this month for a game they must win to maintain control of their Champions' League destiny. Two seasons ago, when Arsenal won 4-0 against PSV, Vieira was one of the black players subjected to racist abuse. With Sol Campbell and Gilberto Silva already ruled out of the 24 November match, Arsenal know they will need a big performance from their captain.

Not that Vieira is the only player out of sorts. He admitted that in recent matches too many players "have been off our game". He added yesterday: that he was confident Arsenal would soon climb out of their current slump: "We are not worried," Vieira said. "Our main strength is our collective game and we are going to start winning games as a team. It was a disappointing result on Tuesday but there is no doubt about the quality of the team. We'll be confident going into the PSV game because we know we can beat any team. I believe we are going to do well there."

Wenger was also keeping calm. "We've been through worse than this," he said. "We must not be too dramatic. We're not even considering a catastrophe like not qualifying. I believe in the strength of my team and I believe we'll do it. We've still only lost once this season."

Wenger knows Arsenal need to progress to the knock-out stages for the cash as well as the glory. The Champions' League was worth £20m to Chelsea last year and the Arsenal manager, reflecting on the investment in the new stadium, observed: "We have borrowed £265m from the banks and we'll pay it back over 14 years, so for that time we won't have the financial power we will have afterwards. What is interesting for us is to speed up reimbursement of the debt. Once you get to the semi-final in the Champions' League you make big money."

In an attempt to secure their passage, Dennis Bergkamp has volunteered to travel overland to Eindhoven. The Dutchman refuses to fly to matches which is likely to rule him out of the final, should Arsenal get there. After five years in which the climax has been at venues relatively accessible by car (Paris, Milan, Glasgow, Manchester, Gelsenkirchen) this year's denouement is in Istanbul. For Arsenal at present that is a long way off, and not just in miles.

* Arsenal's Robert Pires has been summoned to an official meeting in Paris by the French Football Federation president, Claude Simonet, to explain his recent criticisms of the national coach, Raymond Domenech.

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