Clubs will struggle to find the next Giggs and Scholes, says Vieira
Patrick Vieira, back in the Premier League big time at the age of 34, accepts that the football landscape has changed since he left Arsenal six years ago.
But the biggest single difference he has noticed since joining the cash-led revolution at Manchester City last summer is the decline in the number of genuinely talented players on show - and the remorseless rise of the oversized, over-powerful athlete.
'The game is faster than it used to be - people are running quicker and jumping higher,' says the Frenchman in an exclusive interview on the eve of City's FA Cup quarter-final today with Reading.
'And we find fewer good football players like Paul Scholes, Ryan Giggs, Dennis Bergkamp, Thierry Henry. There are fewer good players and more athletes.
'Can you tell me where the next Paul Scholes is? At Arsenal, Jack Wilshere is a brainy football player with good ability and a really exciting future. But there is more emphasis on fitness and less on technical ability. There are fewer players with flair like Bergkamp or Giggs.'
Ask Vieira to name a fantasy team from all his years in England and those same names come up: Giggs and Scholes as well as their former captain at Manchester United, Roy Keane. Steven Gerrard, of Liverpool. Henry, Bergkamp, Andy Cole and Dwight Yorke.
The Arsenal and United players mentioned are mostly from former glorious eras.
Vieira, in the twilight of his career, believes City's best times, fuelled by Abu Dhabi investment, lie ahead.
'I do think this squad are good enough to win the title,' he says.
'But compared to the other teams it's different because this football club are just starting to build.
'People sometimes forget that three or four years ago City were aiming not to go down, now City are playing to win the league. The big difference between City and Arsenal or Manchester United is that the players at those other clubs have been there years and years, the managers have been there years. People need to understand that stability is a really big part of success as well.'
Given his involvement in some Titanic title battles for Arsenal with United, it is no surprise Vieira cites United as 'an example of success, year after year winning and at the top'.
But he is bullish that City are on the brink of a major breakthrough. 'I strongly believe that City next year will be challenging United for the championship. The heart of the team is still going to be here. We've achieved nothing yet because our objective is to finish in the top four and try to win a cup - and there are still a few games to go. But it has been an up and down season and the team have learned a lot from that . . . the ingredients are there.'
In mitigation for mercurial spells, such as the last six Premier League games that have garnered City only two wins, Vieira says: 'Joe Hart is 23, Micah Richards is 22, then there's Boateng (22), Kompany (24), Kolarov (25) and even Nigel de Jong is still only 26.
'It's a really young team, and up front Dzeko (24) is young, Balotelli (20) is young, Silva (25) is young.
'It's still a really young team, so it's really exciting for the future if the club keep the players for years and years.'
On that subject, how important is Carlos Tevez to City's ambition? The statistics show the Argentine has scored 18 of City's 45 league goals and three times more than the next best player, Mario Balotelli.
'If you want a chance to win the league you need a striker who can score 20-25 goals in a season and City have got that player,' Vieira says.
'Tevez works really hard for the team, chasing the back four for 90 minutes and he's someone who can win games. He can take the ball, shoot, 1-0, game over.'
What was the mood at the club like when Tevez threatened to leave? 'I don't walk to talk about it,' he says.
'I think it was really personal and I'm glad that the club kept him. The players were glad, the fans were glad.'
Balotelli, brilliant but volatile, has reportedly been taken under Vieira's wing, although the Frenchman is reticent to elaborate. Both men have shared the trials of being black players in Italy.
Vieira insists of Balotelli: 'He coped really well with it. He concentrated on his game and it made him grow up as a person and as a player as well.'
City's wait for a trophy is infamously long - 35 years since they won the League Cup against Newcastle in 1976. They will move a step closer to ending the hurt if they beat Reading today to reach a first semi-final in the tournament since 1981.
And though City need to overcome a 2-0 deficit in the last 16 of the Europa Cup against Dynamo Kiev, they remain in contention for now.
'We want to do well in the Cup. We play at home and we want to go through, go to Wembley and win it,' Vieira says.
'We hope we win something because the team are good enough and it would be a shame going through the season not winning something.
' It will be a rare season if Vieira ends it with no medal at all. Since Arsenal's Double in 1997- 98, he was won at least one major trophy every single year, with either club or country, aside from 1999.
His last FA Cup win, in 2005, was his fourth with Arsenal, to add to his three Premier League titles, two won as part of Doubles (1998, 2002), the other as Invincibles (2003-04).
Vieira then became a serial Serie A winner at Internazionale after a season with Juventus. Vieira wants to play as long as he can but does not know yet if that will be at City beyond this season.
Long-term, he wants to dedicate much more of his time to his Diambars football schools in Africa: his first school in Senegal is thriving, a second opened in South Africa last year and he dreams of one in every African country.
They give last-chance opportunities to young players, aged 13- 18, wanting a career in the game but yet to get a break, while preparing them for life if they don't make it in sport.
He says: 'What we want to do make is a good human being who can take care of his family, find a job. We hope some can be teachers, doctors. A school in every country is a big ambition but we will try.' As he knows, a lot can be changed in a short space of time.