Two decades ago, Patrick Vieria and Steven Gerrard were the two best up-and-down midfielders in the top flight. They were involved in some memorable contests. They meet again as managers tomorrow when Crystal Palace host Aston Villa. If the Premier League fixture comes close to some of their epic encounters, the Selhurst Park crowd will be in for a treat.
In the 2001 FA Cup final, Vieira produced a magnificent performance for Arsenal against Gerrard’s Liverpool. The Palace manager was in his pomp. The Frenchman was 24 and the engine of Arsene Wenger’s revolution. Gerrard was four years his junior and the heartbeat of Gerard Houllier’s side. Vieira dominated proceedings at the Millennium Stadium.
One cameo illustrated the difference in experience between the two men. They contested a 50-50 challenge in the middle of the park and Vieira shaped his body to lunge towards the ball. Gerrard took the bait and hurled himself into the tackle but as he left the ground Vieira shifted his weight and began moving in the same direction as the ball. The Liverpool midfielder slid by aimlessly as the Arsenal man strolled away after confounding his opponent.
Vieira should have been man of the match that sunny day in Cardiff 20 years ago. He dictated the pace of the game. Entering the final seven minutes, Arsenal led 1-0 and praise was being heaped on the Arsenal dynamo. Then Michael Owen scored twice, Liverpool won the cup and nobody gave Vieira a second thought.
Gerrard was still raw but the man who won the World Cup and the Euros with France looked a class above the finest English midfielder of his generation. Vieira was that good. In any conversation about the best midfield player in the Premier League era, cases can be made for Roy Keane and Frank Lampard (Paul Scholes was never even the best player in any of his teams) as well as Gerrard. But Vieira sits on top of the pile. His surging runs disturbed defences and he could tackle with precision on the edge of his own box. Perhaps he could have scored more goals but he was too willing to provide for the prodigious strikers at Arsenal. It’s close, but the Frenchman edges Gerrard out.
None of that matters now. Both men are in the early stages of a Premier League management career. Significant doubts surrounded Palace’s decision to replace Roy Hodgson, who retired, with Vieira.
Manchester City originally wanted the 45-year-old to be part of their organisation. He spent the final year of his playing career at the Etihad a decade ago and the club thought he might develop into a Bayern Munich-style boardroom presence. The German club pride themselves on turning former players into executives.
It did not quite work out. Next Vieira took on the head coach’s role at New York City FC, another arm of the Abu Dhabi empire. Reviews were mixed and his next move was back to France and Nice.
The Ligue 1 club sacked Vieira almost a year ago. There was some surprise when he re-emerged in south London but the Palace manager has had an encouraging start. His highlights have come away from home against his former teams – a 2-0 victory over City at the Etihad and a 2-2 draw with Arsenal at the Emirates, when only a last-gasp equaliser denied Vieira’s side all three points.
Palace have been vibrant, exciting and deserve to be higher in the table than 10th place. Vieira is getting something close to the best out of Christian Benteke and has taken some of the pressure off Wilfried Zaha by creating different points of attack for the team. Conor Gallagher, on loan from Chelsea, is thriving at Selhurst and there is a real buzz around the club.
There has always been a buzz around Gerrard. He creates excitement. His debut victory at Villa, a 2-0 win over Brighton, was the perfect start to his new job. The Villa manager has not experienced the same managerial growing pains as Vieira. He was an instant success at Rangers but the leap from the Scottish top flight to the Premier League is a big one. Villa are just three points behind Palace and the margins are so tight that either club could be contending for a European place or in a relegation battle by the new year. It will be fascinating to see the impact of two of the most inspirational players in Premier League history in their grown-up roles as managers.
Greatness on the pitch is no guarantee of success in the dugout. Vieira and Gerrard have impeccable credentials. They were once the best at what they did. Both have a long way to go to replicate their triumphs as managers.