It was bordering on the sentimental last night when Patrick Vieira, reflecting on five years away in Italy, said that he had even grown to miss the song Manchester United fans made up for him in the days when he strolled effortlessly through Premier League midfields and waged titanic, intermittent battles with Roy Keane.
"Vieira, oh oh... he gives Giggsy the ball, Arsenal won f*** all..." runs the chant, inspired by the then Arsenal player conceding possession to Ryan Giggs, who set off the slalom that ended with that wonder goal which sealed a famous 1999 FA Cup semi-final replay win at Villa Park. United fans were still singing it when they dumped Arsenal out of the Champions League at the Emirates last May. "I've missed it, so it will be nice to hear it again," Vieira said. "I don't mind the chant. It's part of the atmosphere here and it is completely different than Italy. It's a nicer way to play. I love going to Old Trafford, hearing the fans sing that song. Playing against United was always exciting."
Exciting? That's hardly how Vieira will remember his miserable night at Old Trafford last March, overwhelmed and substituted at half-time as Jose Mourinho's Internazionale lost 2-0 and also exited the Champions League.
But the prospect of throwing on a Manchester City No 24 shirt to encounter Sir Alex Ferguson doesn't feel as overwhelming as it would have done back then. Vieira, a man whose almighty encounters with United continued literally until his last kick of the ball in an Arsenal shirt – the penalty kick which clinched the 2005 FA Cup final in a shootout – has returned for more in the belief that the old adversary are not what they once were.
"They don't look as strong as they used to," Vieira said of the side training a few hundred yards across Carrington's snowy fields. "I don't know why. I haven't watched their games enough but just look at the results. They are not dominating like they used to. United used to be top and so many points clear. That is no longer the case. You have Chelsea, Arsenal and Liverpool so it is not easy to go away and win games anymore." And can Vieira topple them for Mancini – who has taken the gamble of bringing the player back to a Premier League which looked beyond him when he left north London for Juventus in 2005 – as he once did for Arsène Wenger? "Yes. Yes, of course."
If Vieira delivers nothing else in his initial six-month contract, on which there is the option of a 12-month extension, his calm and lucid articulation of City's belief that their club is no longer the diminutive one in this town gives fans something and it adds even more piquancy to the Manchester clubs' Carling Cup ties later this month.
The overriding question is whether Vieira has the capability to exploit the weaknesses which he discerns in United. Michael Carrick, Anderson and Darren Gibson, the current standard bearers in Keane's role, are certainly not what he was but that goes for Vieira, too.
Harry Redknapp disclosed yesterday that he had been very keen to bring the French-Senegalese into Tottenham's midfield last season and Vieira hinted that he might actually have gone were it not for the intense north London rivalries. "Redknapp is someone I admire a lot," he said. "I like the way that he has been managing his team [but] it would have been difficult to go there as an ex-Arsenal player."
But others are less convinced of the 33-year-old, who has started just seven Serie A games this season. Lee Dixon and Nigel Winterburn are among those who have questioned City's decision to sign him, though the player wafted away the doubters as forcefully as he did the prospect of United.
"I have nothing to prove to anybody, to Dixon or Winterburn," he said. "I just have to believe in myself. I know what I am capable of. I came back to England and City because I felt I had something to offer. City believe in me and I want to repay their faith. Everyone is allowed to give their opinion but it is one of thousands of opinions. I spoke to the [Manchester City] legend Mike Summerbee only this morning and he told me that he played until he was 40 so hopefully I will too!"
Vieira is not here for the money alone. It is understood that even if he meets the performance targets set him in his highly-incentivised deal he will command a salary of £70,000-a-week – a pauper's wage by City standards – and he has made no secret of the fact that he is here to win back a place in Raymond Domenech's World Cup squad.
Mancini, who may be without Vieira for the arrival of Blackburn on Monday evening because of a knock to the calf the player received in his last Inter match on Wednesday, suggested he would be a regular presence in one of the midfield positions for which competition is fierce. The Italian also relishes the aerial threat he will offer which City do not possess an abundance of.
"He is tall and scores goals with his head, which is important," said Mancini, who reserves judgement on whether Vieira will become his captain.
The Premier League is a faster place than the one Vieira remembers and even he admits that his brain must deliver a little of what is legs once did.
"Can I cope with the changes? Yes, of course," he said. "I might not be as quick as I was at 20, but my brain is still going really fast. Football is not all about running or speed, it is about using your brain and I have no doubt that I can cope with it, no problems."
He was also as bold about City's title pretensions as his manager has been in the past few weeks. City are "a team who can fight for the title," he believes, "because I don't believe there is another team in the Premier League that has the quality of strikers that we have. The players that we have can score at any time during the game. To win games, you need to score goals and we have got that."
Which United haven't? "I can see the morning's papers!" he replied, sensing the controversy. "I haven't forgotten that! I don't say they are better or nor better, but we can score goals." The wise old head is certainly there, even if the legs are not.
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