Vieira's exit will not push out other top guns

Thierry Henry and Robert Pires have pledged their futures to Arsenal despite the almost certain sale of their French international teammate Patrick Vieira to Real Madrid.

Vieira has told colleagues at Highbury that he will be leaving for the Bernabeu soon, but Henry and Pires have no intention of seeking a move in his wake.

Their loyalty will allay fears that the influential captain’s departure could prompt such dressing-room disillusionment as to lead to the break-up of the Arsenal squad and, in particular, the vital French contingent.

Henry has spoken regularly about his contentment with life at Arsenal and has given private assurances that he will not look to go elsewhere if Vieira moves.

Pires is so happy at Highbury that he would be prepared to extend his contract, which expires in 2006, if Arsenal approached him. That seems unlikely in the near future, though, given that he agreed a new deal at the beginning of last season.

It will come as a relief to Arsenal supporters that Henry and Pires, two of the club’s most important players, have not been unsettled by Vieira’s desire to seek a fresh challenge.

Henry’s value to the club can scarcely be overstated. The striker scored 39 times last season, including 30 in the league, as Arsenal won the championship unbeaten, and has been a crucial source of goals, assists and inspiration since he joined from Juventus five years ago.

Pires added an impressive 19 goals from midfield last season. He has played with Vieira for several years at various levels for country and club but respects his friend’s desire to move and remains committed to Arsenal.

Henry and Pires believe the club will continue to thrive in Vieira’s absence, though they recognise the enormous contribution made by the midfielder at Highbury.

Vieira’s admission to teammates that he will start the season at Madrid confirms that attempts to persuade him to remain at Highbury have failed. Dennis Bergkamp has said the players have been telling the 28-year-old to stay, and manager Arsène Wenger has tried to convince Vieira that his future lies with Arsenal.

Reports from Spain on Tuesday night that a £23,1-million deal had been struck by Madrid’s president Florentino Perez and the Arsenal vice-chairperson, David Dein, are understood to be premature, but there seems little doubt that the transfer will proceed.

Madrid missed Thursday’s midday registration deadline for their Champions League qualifier. There is a feeling in Spain that the Vieira move will be finalised next week.

Madrid and Arsenal declined to comment on the situation but Wenger is due to face the media on Friday, together with some of his players, in the lead-up to Sunday’s Community Shield game against Manchester United at the Millennium stadium.

A £23,1-million fee for Vieira would mean that the midfielder would cost less than Chelsea paid Marseille for the striker Didier Drogba, but any sale would not be made for financial reasons because funding is in place for the Ashburton Grove stadium project and there is no pressure to bring money into the club.

Wenger said recently that ‘we are not out to have a big bank account — we want a big successful team”, but Vieira is determined to break with Arsenal after eight seasons. Wenger’s recent remarks that he did not think Vieira had ‘an interest in Real Madrid” appear a long way wide of the mark.

Vieira is determined to take up a different challenge after a long period at Highbury and will be aware of Madrid’s impressive record in the Champions League, which he has described as ‘the best competition after the World Cup”. He has never been past the quarterfinals of that tournament with Arsenal.

Madrid’s lack of defensive stability undermined their European challenge last season, when they went out in the quarterfinal on away goals after conceding five to Monaco, but the club has since bought the Argentina central defender Walter Samuel and regards Vieira as the key to regaining the European Cup. 

Vieira has been not just a top-quality player for Arsenal but their captain, leader and a symbol of the club’s status as one of Europe’s most highly regarded teams. Opponents are bound to take succour from the midfielder’s absence.

Whether Arsenal would be less successful is another matter. Wenger will recall that his team were written off last year and ended as unbeaten champions. —

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