Vieira's move leaves Arsenal looking for new leading man
Exit the talisman: After eight seasons Highbury will miss the departed Frenchman more as captain than as player
Arsène Wenger made Baptista a higher priority than the Mali midfielder, Lyon's Mahamadou Diarra, believing that Baptista, who scored 18 League goals last season and 20 the year before, offers the goalscoring potential that Arsenal have lacked in Thierry Henry's rare absences (most notably the FA Cup final).
The fact that Vieira's last kick for the club, as it turned out, was the penalty that won the Cup, will be a happy memory that cannot gloss over the disappointment of his performances over the season. By Christmas the player himself was admitting to "one of the worst seasons I have had" and in most supporters' eyes it did not improve greatly. Yet from the start of March, when Wenger conceded the Premiership to Chelsea, and Manchester United, 4-2 winners at Highbury, were favourites to finish second, the team embarked on a superb run, winning 13 games and drawing one, and remaining unbeaten in all competitions until the last minute of the last League game, at Birmingham.
Similar consolation can be drawn from memories of the side's stunning football at the start of the campaign, when Vieira was injured. Having decided at the last moment against joining Real Madrid ("the ties are too strong to break" etc etc), he missed the opening five matches, in which Arsenal looked capable of extending their long unbeaten run indefinitely; United, Everton, Middlesbrough, Blackburn and Norwich were swept imperiously aside with 19 goals scored at almost four per match. The crucial central midfield positions were filled by Gilberto Silva, finally demonstrating his true quality, and the precocious Cesc Fabregas, with Jose Antonio Reyes scoring in every game and another youngster, Mathieu Flamini, coming off the substitutes' bench to good effect.
Edu was not a significant force, especially after making known his desire to join Valencia at the end of the season, and now the youngsters are a year older, wiser and physically stronger. What Arsenal will have lost with his captain's departure is a strong leader of men. It is a role that does not appear to suit Henry, the confirmed successor, a talented individualist prone to standing with hands on hips, Johnny Haynes style, despairing at the fallibility of less gifted team-mates.
Sol Campbell would have been a better choice as long as he is not sulking about missing the FA Cup final or being mentioned as bait to lure Jermaine Jenas from Newcastle as a direct replacement for Vieira. Whether Jenas is a realistic option depends on the Del Nido theory: there is no indication that the player wants to leave Tyneside, though he could make life difficult, if not impossible, for Graeme Souness once he did.
"I like Jenas but we have made no approach," Wenger said last night. "There is no hurry because we have plenty of players. There was no right time to sell Patrick Vieira. What's important now is to show great strength and togetherness. We've faced these kind of problems before and always bounced back."
Whoever eventually arrives, last Friday's departure clearly marks the end of an era, the success of which should not be understated despite the continual failure to win the Champions' League. In eight full seasons Vieira's team did not finish outside the top two, winning three Premierships and four FA Cups. The player himself was named in the PFA team of the year for six successive seasons, and his failure to make it last season may have been significant in the decision to seek a new challenge. The cynicism and racism in Italy will test his patience as much as lack of protection and understanding from referees early in his English career. We should wish him well.
In the first match of the post-Vieira epoch yesterday, a 4-1 stroll at Barnet, Robert Pires and Flamini occupied the central positions for 65 minutes, with Aleksander Hleb outside them. Hleb, the surprisingly slender Belarussian signed from Stuttgart, scored within two minutes of his debut and by half-time a strong attacking line-up had added three further goals. Henry, wearing the captain's armband, converted a penalty, Dennis Bergkamp curled a delicious 20-yarder in off the crossbar and Justin Hoyte tapped in a cross from Pires.
Had the same players been left on for the duration, a repeat of last season's 10-1 victory - when Barnet made the mistake of scoring first - would have been on the cards. But Henry, Bergkamp and Reyes were among those withdrawn at the interval, after which the Conference champions saw more of the ball and pulled a goal back through Dean Sinclair. The French international defender Phillipe Christian Val appeared at centre-half, initially alongside Pascal Cygan, but Wenger insisted he wants to keep Campbell, who has a minor injury.
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