As Raymond Domenech's France squad prepare for their forthcoming encounters against Romania and Serbia, games which could go a long way to determining whether Les Bleus reach the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™, only Thierry Henry remains from the side which triumphed at France 1998.
Indeed, with notional national-team captain Patrick Vieira omitted from Domenech's squad selection for the second successive occasion, it would appear the time is now ripe for pretenders to occupy his midfield throne. In purely defensive terms the likes of Lassana Diarra, Jeremy Toulalan, Alou Diarra and Mathieu Flamini all have a strong case, but it is Arsenal's Abou Diaby whose barnstorming displays have drawn most comparisons with Vieira at his all-action best.
Plagued by injuries for the past two seasons, the 33-year-old Vieira, a veteran of 107 senior national-team appearances, is finding it ever more difficult to win back his place in the Inter Milan midfield. Shorn of valuable playing time, Vieira's grasp on a France shirt has consequently loosened. "It's his club situation that counts. Pat needs games and we all hope he'll be back soon," said Domenech.
The stark reality is that Vieira's last competitive match for France came on 12 September 2007, in the shock 1-0 home defeat by Scotland. What is more, his three friendly appearances since then have also failed to further his cause, in particular the 1-0 home reverse against Nigeria on 2 June this year.
Counting against him is the fact Les Bleus can no longer afford to wait and see whether Vieira can rediscover his imposing form of old. In desperate need of a dynamic performer in the engine room, able to both win the ball and link defence and attack, Diaby's blistering start to the season, which has included two league goals, suggests he has earned his chance to shine.
He's the kind of player that catches the eye of football experts
straight away. It's not something you can explain, it's like being
drawn to the charms of a beautiful woman.
"His versatility is a real asset for us. He's a potential solution to a number of problem areas," said Domenech. "One day he'll need to find a position and stick to it, but I'm sure he'll work that out with his coach at club level. For the time being it's a real bonus for the France team."
Diaby has been following in Vieira's footsteps for some time now, starting in the winter transfer window of 2005/06, when Gunners' supremo Arsene Wenger purchased the then Auxerre youngster to help fill the gap left by his former captain's move to Juventus in 2005. "His ball-winning ability reminds me of Vieira," is Wenger's verdict. "He can play great cross-field balls and he's also capable of surprisingly powerful attacking bursts. I even think that he's a more attacking player than Patrick."
The two men also share a similar long-legged and rangy physique, as well as the ability to break forward from midfield and threaten opposing defences. "He's the kind of player that catches the eye of football experts straight away. It's not something you can explain, it's like being drawn to the charms of a beautiful woman," said former Auxerre coach Guy Roux, for whom "Diaby is Vieira's natural successor".
Having been brought up in the suburbs of Paris and learned his trade at France's famed Clairefontaine National Football Institute and then at Auxerre, this archetypal Wenger purchase made his English Premier League debut shortly after signing in January 2006.
A member of France's UEFA European U-19 Championship winning side in 2005, Diaby got off to an encouraging start in England only for his progress to be cruelly halted by a serious ankle injury which kept him out for eight months. Finding it difficult to shake off niggles after getting back to full fitness, a problem seemingly solved recently by following a muscle-strengthening programme, his breakthrough into France's senior squad was limited to single starts in March 2007 and March 2008.
"I've the desire and the ambition to form part of this squad," said the man of the moment, who is arguably in the best physical and mental shape of his career to date. "I know that there's a lot of competition in midfield but I'm ready to play. I'm there to take on responsibility."
A self-stated admirer of "the sheer power" of his "role model" Vieira, what better tribute could Diaby pay to the France legend than pick up his midfield baton and drive Les Bleus all the way to South Africa 2010?