Verve of Vieira a revelation

Norman Fox assesses the other Gallic influence at Old Trafford on Saturday
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Next up in the Premiership for recently down-trodden Manchester United come rumour besieged but on-form Arsenal. The match at Old Trafford on Saturday is not going to decide the championship but could give a good idea whether United are going to retain it or Arsenal have a serious chance of regaining it. And who are the people most likely to have the biggest say in this most English of north v south encounters? Two Frenchmen, or three if you count Arsenal's manager Arsene Wenger.

Eric Cantona, no longer in favour as a French international and not at his most expressive in United's worrying succession of defeats, can still turn a match with a well-heeled pass, but against him will be someone whose youthful appearance will be a reminder that his dream of playing in a World Cup in France is one that may not be realised. Significantly, Arsenal's Patrick Vieira has been with the French national squad this week while Cantona has had time off.

Asked about Cantona, Vieira, who is 20, points out that there is a 10- year age difference. "I admire him but you must remember that I had not even started to play professionally when he left France to play here." For him Cantona, David Ginola and Frank Leboeuf are players who were established before he was in his teens. He was born in Dakar, Senegal, and was one of football's mature 16-year-olds. At seventeen he was playing for Tours then moved to Cannes, and at 19 he became the youngest captain in the French league, probably of all time. He was already over six feet tall.

His arrival at Arsenal from Milan was all a bit of a mystery, with some subterfuge thrown in. If some of Arsenal's players and a lot of supporters had never heard of Wenger, they had certainly no knowledge of Vieira, who had made only a handful of first team appearances in Italy and a few for the French Under-21 side. Nevertheless, Wenger recommended him when, officially, he was still managing in Japan and not on the Arsenal payroll. If Bruce Rioch wanted any further proof that Wenger was to be his successor, the signing of Vieira for about pounds 3.5m was it. The news seeped out of Highbury well before the signature had been seen, which is commonplace these days at the club that used to pride itself on keeping its off-field affairs to itself. Wenger's insistence last week that he has nothing to hide and that the rumours of his imminent resignation or sacking are malicious has not been made any easier by his knowing that too much of Arsenal's business gets into the headlines in advance of their announcements.

Ajax had offered Vieira a contract, but Wenger won, as much because Vieira had always followed British football as that they were both French.Wenger says Milan will soon discover their mistake. "He is becoming a symbol of what Arsenal like - he's ready to fight for the whole game, to win the ball and go forward. He already has the Arsenal spirit, which is what we have to consider whenever we buy a new player."

Seeing Vieira in his first training session at London Colney, some of Arsenal's senior players, who were concerned Wenger might throw them out for being too old, had to admit Vieira was "special". Curiously, it was just what they needed, not simply a midfield player with pace and vision but someone who could find his man so accurately that a few older legs, not least those of Ian Wright, would not have to scamper around chasing long balls that by no stretch of the imagination started life as passes.

It was obvious that with such a talent available Dennis Bergkamp would be released from midfield to join Wright up front. Pat Rice, who after Rioch's departure kept Wenger's seat warm, has one word for Vieira: "class" or, if pressed, two: "pure class".

Vieira's long striding carrying of the ball from penalty area to penalty area has now become a feature of Arsenal's improvement since they were knocked out of the Uefa Cup by Borussia Monchengladbach in September. His scrupulous passing has made almost as significant a contribution to Wright's return to England's squad as Alan Shearer's absence. Wenger said: "Ian must be given the right touch at the right moment," which is where Vieira comes in.

Wright says Vieira never looks to play safe to another midfield player. "If he sees me in the right place, he can find me. His passes are giving me a lot more chances this season." And even in the middle of a typical battle with Wimbledon, Vieira avoided all attempts to smother him, running two thirds of the pitch before setting up Wright for a fine goal. Joe Kinnear said: "With Bergkamp, Wright and now Vieira, they have so much experience, they've got to win something." Probably, except that by comparison with the other two Vieira has no experience at all. "I got some at Milan by being with so many good players, but playing for Arsenal is my only real experience." You would never have known.