Vieira's growth as leader inspires Gunners

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The Independent Online

The losers' dressing-room, after an FA Cup semi-final, is one of the most desolate places in sport. Defeated finalists get a day out and a place in the history books but there is no consoling the competition's forgotten men. Save, perhaps, the memory of being in the victors' dressing-room in the past, and knowing bigger prizes remain within reach.

At least that is what one would imagine, but when Arsène Wenger looked around the dressing-room at Villa Park on Saturday it was one of his most decorated players who was hurting most: the World Cup, European Championship, Premiership and FA Cup-winner Patrick Vieira.

"If you had seen Patrick, then you would not think he had won much at all," Wenger said. "He was one of the most disappointed players but that is one of his strengths." It is to his captain that the Arsenal manager will look tonight as the Premiership leaders seek to reach another semi-final, that of the Champions' League. First they must overcome the disappointment of Saturday, and the challenge of Chelsea.

"We have already forgotten about Saturday, physically and psychologically, even though we wanted to reach the FA Cup final," Vieira said yesterday. "Sunday was difficult at training because we still had Saturday on our mind, but now we are focused on Chelsea. We still have the two biggest targets to aim for [the Premiership and Champions' League] and we still believe we are strong."

In many ways, Vieira was immense on Saturday, with even Sir Alex Ferguson moved to pay tribute to his performance. "He was everywhere," the Manchester United manager said, unprompted, in admiration. However, Vieira did not appear to provide the leadership Arsenal required when their composure deserted them in the last half-hour. While he did not resort to diving in with lunging tackles, as he might have done a few years ago, and was much more restrained than Thierry Henry when it came to beseeching team-mates and the referee, he failed to calm his frantic colleagues and slow Arsenal's headless tempo.

This was, perhaps, a reflection of both his leadership style and all-action game. "Part of being captain is talking a lot, being positive," he said, "but I don't talk a lot as captain. I believe the way I behave on the pitch, in training and during the game is important and that is how I try to lead the team."

In preferring the huddle to the hairdryer, Vieira is not alone. He picked out Sol Campbell, Dennis Bergkamp and Martin Keown as the team's big communicators. Keown is not in the side and neither of the others is especially vocal, not like Tony Adams when he wore the Gunners' armband. Not that, Vieira admitted, he would necessarily have been advising patience anyway.

"Maybe in the second half we tried too much to find the strikers early, and were in too much of a hurry," Vieira said. "We didn't take our time to pass the ball, our movement was not that good, and we had a lack of patience because we wanted to score straightaway. If that is the same against Chelsea, will I try to slow things down? No. When you are on the pitch, 1-0 down, you just try to go forward and try to score."

At this point it should be noted that Vieira's method of leading by example is usually inspired. Dismissed nine times for the club, Vieira was not the obvious choice as captain when Adams moved on but the Frenchman, Arsenal's longest-serving player after Ray Parlour, Keown and Bergkamp, has become as much Arsenal's heartbeat as Adams was. Wenger added: "Patrick is a driving force. He has grown tremendously as a leader, taking a lot of responsibilities in the dressing-room. I thought he would grow into the role but he has done so quicker than I expected."

This amalgam of talent, desire and leadership has, understandably, attracted offers from elsewhere, notably Manchester United and Real Madrid. Vieira, having fallen in love with the Highbury ethos and atmosphere, has resisted them all. His medal collection is not, however, complete. It lacks Champions' League honours and every time Arsenal fail in Europe - they are yet to reach a Champions' League semi-final - the speculation begins anew.

Yesterday Vieira and Wenger deflected questions hinting, even obliquely, at this. Vieira only said: "The club wants to improve in Europe. Going to the semi-final is a step forward. We cannot be called a big club until we have done well in Europe."

At 27, time is still on Vieira's side but he knows this season represents one of his, and Arsenal's, best chances of filling that void. Chelsea are the immediate obstacle and he expects them to crowd his midfield battleground as United did. "We are not worried," he said. "With our quality we are good enough to cope."

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