'Vieira will be the player of the season from now on'

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The Independent Online

Arsène Wenger bluffed successfully when he predicted Patrick Vieira would turn down Real Madrid to stay at Ars-enal last summer.

Arsène Wenger bluffed successfully when he predicted Patrick Vieira would turn down Real Madrid to stay at Ars-enal last summer. The outstanding French manager secretly feared he had lost his formidable captain. Now Wenger is hoping to get it right again by betting on his fellow countryman to lead their first-ever successful defence of the Premiership title, albeit with a just slightly stronger hand.

Arsenal start their Christmas run of games five points behind the Premiership leaders, Chelsea, at home to Fulham today, with trips to Newcastle and Charlton to follow before Manchester City visit on Tuesday week. That is perfect timing forWenger, who feels Vieira, his captain, is only now beginning to hit top form. Wenger, who has had Vieira alongside him since September 1996, is now the world's most sought-after manager, and midfielder Vieira, 28, a World and European Cup winner, is being asked to prove he still has the desire to match his ability.

"We expect Patrick to be our leader in the second part of the season," Wenger said. "I feel he will be the important player in the Premier League from now on. He is highly concerned with everything that happens at the club. He feels he has a big part to play, especially as we have a very young team.

"In the first part of the season Patrick was disturbed, disrupted and left injured from the European Championships. When he was finally back to his best in the middle of October, against Aston Villa - he was sensational that day - he got injured again.

"He was down mentally for a while after that and he came back too early against Manchester United. He was so keen to play that I think we rushed him back. We were both guilty over that. I am very positive about his current attitude and how he deals with problems, and I think he is now back to full fitness."

Vieira has two-and-a-half years left on his contract, and Wenger feels there will be many more successful years ahead. "I was convinced he would go in the summer," Wenger admitted. "I have had some hard battles with Patrick, but I would say now he will not go."

Chelsea replaced them at the top at the beginning of November after Arsenal's 49-game unbeaten run finished at Man-chester United. But Wenger's Christmas address to the footballing nation is a defiant one. He thinks they might yet win the Premiership and Champions' League, and insisted: "We are back and it is important for us to show that over the Christmas period. The spirit is back and the belief is back, as is the determined attitude of the players. Before, you could see how fragile things can be in football and how quickly our belief went. Real Madrid have three or four European and World Players of the Year but they look lost. And that is for one reason - the belief has gone." Arsenal's belief is restored.

Wenger, who also joked that he finally agreed with Alex Ferguson about something - that Chelsea will drop points - said: "I think Patrick's return to form and fitness will help us make a fantastic challenge. The players have created something special here and want to take it as far as possible. I feel we still have a long way to go together."

Wenger will shuffle his pack today as Gaël Clichy replaces the suspended Ashley Cole. The Brazilian midfield duo of Gilberto Silva and Edu are still injured, so Mathieu Flamini will probably get the nod ahead of Cesc Fabregas to partner Vieira in midfield. Despite the injuries and worries over rapidly expiring contracts for Edu and Lauren (Sol Campbell will sign soon, and there is not too much concern about Jermaine Pennant), Wenger insists he will not be adding to his squad next month. And that includes a goalkeeper.