Many of you will not have followed the legend that is Robert Pires, since his move to Villarreal.  The parting of the ways between Arsenal and Pires could, and looking at what he had done for this club, should have been better.  There was a sense of regret, blame and pain associated with it.  Pires felt like the forgotten man in Wenger’s master plan, sacrificed in the biggest game of his club career.
However, looking back at it, the change Wenger made was by far the most logical thing to do.  Down to ten men, Wenger must have looked at his side and considered who he felt could do the most running, last the full 90 minutes, and maybe extra time.  Ljungberg will run all day for you, Hleb was prepared to work at both ends, could find the killer ball, and last the full distance, Gilberto was the rock that season, and Fabregas was our main man.  We all know Pires never liked the defensive side of the game; it’s what we loved about him.  Whoever was picked to come off, it was never going to be pleasant and it certainly was never going to be a nice selection for Wenger to make.
Pires had been a great servant for us; that is why it was so hard to see him, on the verge of tears, as he took his seat on the bench.  What was it that made Pires so great?  Many fans will have varying answers to this question but for me there were a few stand-out things: his commitment to Arsenal, the faith he had in attacking football, the sheer joy he had playing it, and the winning mentality he had.  Oh, and he loved scoring against Spurs!
Whenever Pires played for Arsenal, although he may not have liked a tackle, the fans knew his heart was there.  He wanted to win so badly.  To this day, I still watch Arsenal and rue the fact we no longer have Pires to steal in unnoticed at the back post and finish off a move that may have been lost.  He had the poacher’s instinct to sniff out a goal, and when he saw an opportunity he never let it go.  He never gave the ball up when it seemed a chance might have gone.
He also had the brilliance to conjure one moment of brilliance out of nothing.  Before his injury, Pires was unbelievable.  Wenger said he was the best player in the world in his position; I do not argue with this.  The guy was amazing.  Cast your minds back to Villa Park in 2002, when Pires chased a long ball; after knocking the ball past Boateng he approached Peter Schmeichel.  So many forwards have cracked under the presence of the Great Dane, not Pires.  He made Schmeichel look like an amateur, lobbing the ball deftly over him.  That is still my favourite Robert Pires goal.  It sums up his skill, audacity, cheek and love for the game.
A comment made by Martin Tyler sticks in my mind.  Away at White Hart Lane in 2004, the day on which we won the title in the enemy’s backyard, Pires got on the ball, with the score at 1-0.  Tyler said “Pires, the conductor”.  Lo and behold, right on queue, Pires began a flowing move which he finished.  So much of Arsenal’s brilliant attacking play involved the Frenchman.  I loved his desire to get the ball on the deck and play the passing game he had been ordered to play.  It was a joy to watch Pires strut his stuff, not only at Highbury, but also at grounds across the country.
Pires currently does the exact same thing at ‘El Madrigal’ Stadium, the home of Villarreal.  Pires’ legs may be going, but his football brain and talent is not.  He often cannot play full games but the manager there understands the influence he can still have on proceedings.  The love he receives from the fans is the same; fans just love attacking football; Pires lives for attacking football.  It will be weird to see Pires playing against Arsenal, but we will know what to fear from him.  Wenger will be no better judge of how to stop him but I still cannot help but fear the ability of Bobby.
Hopefully Arsenal will have too much quality for Villarreal.  Although Marcos Senna and Santi Cazorla will look to boss midfield as they did so well for Spain, we should have too much power for the Spanish side.  If we let them play, we could get picked off but if we go there to win, we are more than capable of doing so.  Up until the 3-0 defeat on Saturday to lowly Almeria, Villarreal’s form was decent.  Domestically they had won 3 of the last 5 games, drawing 1 and losing 1.  One thing I noticed though was that they do ship goals.  Deportivo, Valencia and Atletico all put 3 past them in 2009.  Good attacking sides can break them down and currently we are in full flow.
Villarreal’s threat is undoubtedly going forward.  Llorente is a big handful up front and will test Gallas and Toure’s ability to dominate in the air.  Giuseppe Rossi will be busy in and around Llorente as Pires, Matias Fernandez and Cazorla look to pounce.  Villarreal will create chances and we must defend as a team.  Their threat comes from a collective passing game, involving the whole team, rather than a few individuals.  Therefore, if every player works had to shut the ball down and win his personal battle, we can look to build from the back.
Marcos Senna, the best player at Euro 2008 in my eyes, could be a big thorn in our side. Sitting in front of the back four, he will look to stifle the likes of Nasri and Van Persie.  Quick movement and interchange up front will be crucial, as well as the passing of Fabregas.  I believe Cesc is the man who can win us this tie.  We saw against City how important he is.  His eye for a pass is the one thing that can change a Champions League tie on its head.  One defence splitting pass can provide an away goal.  If we work hard defensively, the platform can be built for Fabregas.  I would play Song and Denilson once again, enabling Fabregas to have a free role.  That is how I see us winning this tie.
I cannot wait to see Pires play live once again, in a match that involves Arsenal. Even though he picked up a red card in the weekend match which saw 4th place La liga Villareal crash to a 3-0 defeat at the hands of lower placed (12th)Almeria. The suspension will not apply to European fixtures. It is a shame he will be against us, and I will not cheer should he score.  When the return leg comes around, the man better get a massive ovation, he deserves it.  He was a legend for this club and I will never forget him.