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Jul 11, 2005

'I don't wanna go to Chelsea'

They say the pulling power and billions of Roman Abramovich and Chelsea are irresistible, but Arsenal new boy Alexander Hleb is among those who has expressed a different view this summer.

Despite the petro-dollars gushing out at Stamford Bridge, most of Chelsea's recent transfer targets have uttered a 'thanks but no thanks' to date, with a prime example being Belarus attacking midfielder Hleb, who recently move to Highbury in a £10.7 million deal from Stuttgart.

With Stuttgart playing hard-ball in their negotiations with Arsenal for Hleb - their initial offer of £8.5 million was rejected by the Germans - Chelsea had hoped to mount a late snatch, but Hleb was unmoved. North and not West London is where he wanted to be, so he has turned his dream into reality.

'Chelsea showed a lot of interest in me and I was very flattered,' said the 24-year-old Hleb, whose dribbling skills made him one of the most exciting performers in the Bundesliga.

'They are, of course, a top club, Champions League semi-finalists with an outstanding coach and squad, but I had decided much earlier in the day to sign for Arsenal. I believe they are my ideal club. I had the impression they really wanted me, that they saw me as an important part of their plans. I gave them my word and saw no reason to go back on it.

'I'm sure I've made the right choice. Arsenal are a club with huge ambitions, who expect to win trophies every year. There are only stars in the Arsenal team. I'm thrilled by the prospect of playing with world class players like Henry, Vieira and Bergkamp.

'I'm really looking forward to my new life in the Premiership. The grounds there are always full and there's a special atmosphere. Supporters get right behind their team; they back them vocally from the kick-off to the final whistle. I can't wait to step out at Highbury wearing an Arsenal shirt. I visited the ground for a League match against Liverpool towards the end of last season and the noise of the crowd sent shivers down my spine.'

Arsenal boss Arsene Wenger is not only highly thought of in England and his native France. In the Bundesliga too, he is revered - indeed, he has at various times been linked to coaching posts with Germany and Bayern Munich - and Hleb is an unconditional admirer as well.

'It didn't take me long to realise that Arsene Wenger was the coach for me,' says Hleb.

'He set out Arsenal's objectives, described the club and totally won me over. He has a worldwide reputation as a great coach and I'm convinced he can make me a better player. He stands for fast, spectacular attacking football and that's how I prefer the game to be played.'

Last season was very much a mixed one for Hleb. No one in the Bundesliga created more goals than him, with 14 assists to his credit. Yet over the campaign as a whole his form was patchy and just two league goals was a poor return for a player of his class.

Furthermore, as Stuttgart's hopes of securing a Champions League qualifying berth faded away in the last couple of months of the campaign, rumours circulated that he was not on good terms with coach Matthias Sammer and some of his team mates.

Sammer, in particular, urged Hleb to be more of a leader on the pitch, but that was simply wishful thinking. The softly-spoken Belarusian has not a shred of the rabble-rouser in him, preferring to let his football do his talking.

I believe the time was right for me to move on. I needed a fresh challenge, to take the next step up in my career.
Alexander Hleb

'Naturally, everyone connected with Stuttgart was frustrated last season,' says Hleb. 'Our aim was to make the Champions League and we came up short in fifth. We received a lot of criticism and that's understandable. On a personal level, it was not a particularly good year for me. I know only too well that I didn't consistently play to a high standard. I stagnated.

'I believe the time was right for me to move on. I needed a fresh challenge, to take the next step up in my career. I had five largely good years at Stuttgart and learnt a lot there. It was not easy to leave them. I'd grown to love the club the city, the fans, but the temptation to play for a top club in a top championship was too strong.

'Every player dreams of going as far as he can in the game, of testing himself at the highest possible level. Although a lot of people will not believe it, I haven't come to England for the money. I want to win things. Arsenal will be in the running for the Premiership title and FA Cup and with some luck we will be in contention for the Champions League.

'I know the competition for places at Arsenal will be intense but I'm prepared for it. It's up to me to show every day on the training ground that I'm worthy of a regular place in the side.'

The all-important question is where Arsene Wenger intends to play Hleb. For Stuttgart, the Belarusian lined up either centrally behind the strikers or floating wide on the left. Yet wherever he lines up, he can be a devastating attacking force, especially when using his quick feet, pace and perfect balance to effortlessly glide past defenders.

Alexander Hleb: A creative talent looking forward to playing with Arsenal's glittering talents.
Alexander Hleb: A creative talent looking forward to playing with Arsenal's glittering talents.

'I should score more and it's an aspect of my game I'm working on,' admits Hleb, whose record for Stuttgart was less than impressive as he scored just 13 times in 137 Bundesliga games. 'Ever since I was a child, my first instinct on the pitch has been to make chances for others. There's something in my blood.'

Some observers of the German footballing scene have recently claimed that Hleb's slight frame will not stand up well to the rigours of the Premiership. However, the man of the moment begs to differ: 'I don't think the physicality of the game in England can be any worse than in the Bundesliga,' he concludes.

'I was covered in bruises after every game in Germany. Sometimes it was unbelievable how aggressively I was treated. Anyway, in the Arsenal team, there are players who will be more closely marked than me.'

He may not be the highest profile arrival in the Premiership this summer, yet Alex Hleb may just be one of the more significant signings.

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