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Pirès glad to be back in the high life

Robert Pirès told uefa.com it is "phenomenal to be back in the Champions League" with Villarreal CF for this first time since the disappointment of being substituted early in the final while with Arsenal FC two years ago.

Pirès glad to be back in the high life
Pirès glad to be back in the high life ©UEFA.com

It is no more than 150km from the Champagne region to Paris, capital of France, epicentre of French international football and home of the first European Champion Clubs' Cup final 53 years ago. On that night Real Madrid CF defeated Stade de Reims Champagne 4-3 in a classic encounter, but by the time Reims-born Robert Pirès reached the Stade de France in Paris with Arsenal FC in 2006 his journey, in both geographical and personal terms, had been a lot longer.

Heady emotions
This irrepressibly inventive midfielder made his debut for his hometown club Stade de Reims Champagne in the youth divisions in 1991 before developing at FC Metz and Olympique de Marseille and landing at Highbury nine years later. His extraordinary creativity and supply of goals from midfield helped make Arsène Wenger's side unbeatable in 2003/04 as they won the Premier League without a single defeat. Dominance in England made the UEFA Champions League still more of a priority for everyone at Arsenal and season 2005/06 took the Gunners to the final in Paris, ironically via a defeat of Villarreal CF in the last four. The boy from Reims was in a Parisian final of the competition where his home town club had inaugurated one of the great phenomena of professional football – the European Cup.

Immediate conclusion
Friends, family, Arsenal supporters all gathered for a moment of symbolism. Then, disaster. Jens Lehmann was sent off for bringing down Samuel Eto'o and when Wenger made a tactical change it was the No7 which was raised so that Manuel Almunia could replace the German in goal. "When the board went up I simply couldn't believe it, I thought it was a practical joke," Pirès told uefa.com. "Even as I was walking off the pitch, in front of friends and family who had come to watch us in Paris, I knew this meant I no longer had Arsène Wenger's full confidence. The immediate conclusion from that was that I could no longer stay at Arsenal for the next season. Eighteen minutes in a Champions League final in Paris; that makes it very, very hard to take. Then, much worse, we lost the match. I didn't sleep well that night or for a long time. It hasn't turned out to be so but, of course, that could easily have been my last experience of Champions League football."

Village life
Pirès would probably have lived happily without the cloud which brought silver lining, but here he is today, under the almost perpetual blue skies of Spain's eastern Mediterranean coast where Villarreal play their seductive brand of football. However, he admits his decision to move to El Madrigal was a controversial one. "I know when I left Arsenal to come here people were saying 'Pirès must be crazy!'" he grinned. "People wondered what I'd do here, and how on earth I'd chosen to end up in a village. I say village because there are only 50,000 inhabitants. Generally people just didn't understand. But I'd taken really careful notice that day we beat them in the semi-final. Firstly, we needed a lot of luck to go through against them which was interesting to me. Secondly I could see that Villarreal had a clear football vision and very, very good players."

Final chance
On the point of turning 35 and reviewing his career month by month Pirès hopes such a quality of squad can, beginning with the Matchday 3 visit of Aalborg BK, take him all the way in this year's competition again. "It's phenomenal to be back in the Champions League, not just because we kicked off by drawing away from home with last season's winners but because of how much Villarreal deserve to be on this stage. Our achievements in finishing second in La Liga merited this opportunity to play Europe's great sides and it's my opinion that Villarreal play joyful football. No matter whether we play [RC] Deportivo La Coruña in the league or Manchester United [FC] in Europe we approach the task with the same attitude and play with the same intentsity. That's our secret."