The spark that keeps Arsenal gunning

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It is the consuming topic of this summer transfer window - is Patrick Vieira, captain of Arsenal and the dominant holding midfield player of our times, on his way to Real Madrid?

Though the clubs have remained stoically tight-lipped, it is a rumour that refuses to go away. One line from Spain on Wednesday night was that Madrid's offer now stood at €30m (£20m), while the Londoners were holding out for €36m.

With every hour that passes, it looks increasingly unlikely that Vieira would be available to play in Real's Champions League qualifying tie against Poland's Wisla Krakow, an indignity forced on them by their poor performance last season and not a clash they can afford to take lightly. To do so, he would need to be registered with the Spanish club by end of Thursday lunchtime. But equally, few would now bet against the Frenchman being a Real player by the time the transfer window closes at the end of this month. So how badly would he be missed?

Much was made of Arsenal's swagger in sweeping undefeated through the Premiership last season. It was Vieira, above all, who gave the Gunners the stability necessary to achieve this momentous feat. If he goes, the Londoners' game-plan would have to undergo radical reinvention.

There is talk, for example, of Arsenal moving for Maniche, a star of Euro 2004, but the Porto midfielder is not the athlete Vieira is and their styles could hardly be more different.

The Frenchman is, quite simply, the best holding midfielder in the world, quick and strong, capable of charging from box to box from start to finish, and yet skilful enough that he can casually lift the ball over an opponent's head in a crowded centre-circle.

With him, Arsenal could afford the languid skills of Robert Pires, turning a blind eye to his defensive limitations; they got away with a disappointing season from Fredrik Ljungberg; and the other central - midfielder whether Edu or Gilberto Silva - was required to do little more than circulate the ball.

Without Vieira Pires could become a liability, and the forward surges of Ashley Cole on that left flank may have to be curtailed accordingly.

What made Arsenal so awesome last season was their pace and movement, the constant swirl of passes as more and more players committed themselves to attacks. Vieira was the cover that made that possible, and, since the decline of Roy Keane and Claude Makelele, in that he is unique.

Neither Gilberto or Edu have the drive, the force of physique and personality that Vieira does. Neither yet does Mathieu Flamini, the promising 20-year-old signed from Marseille in the summer.

Vieira missed almost two months of last season, during which time Arsenal scrambled victories over Liverpool and Chelsea and hammered Internazionale 5-1, but it would be false comfort for Arsenal fans to read too much into that.

October and November were the months of their harrowing, when, beset by injuries and suspensions imposed in the wake of the Old Trafford brawl and inspired by the desire to avenge the previous season's capitulation, Arsenal found the depth of character to defy logic. Nobody can do that for a season; Vieira would be sorely missed.

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