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Hinschberger dismissed by Metz


Arsenal tear through sorry Everton

The Match
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The father figures

Arsenal's youngsters may have dominated the headlines as they plotted an unlikely route through to this season's Champions League Final, yet it may come down to a couple of old stagers to calm a few naive nerves in Paris on Wednesday night.

Goalkeeper Jens Lehmann and winger Freddie Ljungberg have fought long and hard to get into a position to play in Europe's ultimate club fixture and as the more youthful members of the Arsenal squad prepare for the definitive test of their metal, manager Arsene Wenger will look to his older heads to implement the master plan.

For Lehmann and Ljungberg, this showpiece occasion is the ultimate reward for their recovery from recent setbacks that have forced both to look long and hard at their motivation to continue at the very highest level. Injuries and loss of form have disrupted both in the last 18 months and for the latter of the duo, the heartache of many years of failure in Europe can be banished on their night of destiny against the mighty Barcelona.

Ljungberg has been a key member of the Arsenal sides who have consistently failed to convert their sparkling Premiership form into European glory in the last decade and he admits to be surprised by their unexpected success this time around.

'Other teams have tried to stop us playing over the years, but this time they have looked at us as a young, struggling team and thought they could beat us and that attitude has played into our hands,' believes the Swede.

'Being underdogs has helped us. The way we play has worked really well in the Champions League this time and I cannot explain why that has not been the case in other years. I suppose, if I'm being honest, it's a big of a surprise to find ourselves in this Final, but we have to make the most of it.

'Sometimes, these things come down to luck and in the past, we haven't had that. When you remember Chelsea scoring against us with just two minutes to go, it didn't give us long to respond. Things have gone our way in the Champions League this time where they didn't in the past.'

While Ljungberg's recent woes have generally related to the hip injury that many feel has taken away an edge from his game, Lehmann's problems at Highbury were all self inflicted.

When he was dropped from the side last season, most observers felt his time at Highbury was coming to an end, so as he saved Juan Riquelme's 89th minute penalty to see off Villarreal and seal Arsenal's place in this Final last month, he provided the ultimate riposte to those who wrote him off.

'When I was left out of the team last season, Mr Wenger told me I wasn't fresh enough any more and it was a time to take stock,' says the keeper who was dropped in favour of the less than convincing Manuel Almunia in December 2004.

'After that, I changed my routines and accepted there was a need to make adjustments. Maybe the manager was right, maybe I was tired and when I look back now, it's clear that he made some important points.

'I changed a few things and did what my fitness coach and goalkeeping coach want me to do. These people are very close to Arsene Wenger and it has all worked well for me since then. You don't just have to change your routines on the pitch, but also in the mind as well. I set myself some targets and had five goals, with three of them down. Now, I just have this Champions League mission and the World Cup finals to accomplish.'

Lehmann's revival is commendable, as he has rebuilt his confidence and reputation from a point where few return. Always a fine shot stopper, his judgement of when to leave his goal has also improved of late and as he prepares to face the best attacking side in world football, they view Arsenal's German as a formidable opponent.

No one in the media can judge the way I behave on the pitch because they haven't experienced playing the game in the Premiership.
Jens Lehmann

However, no profile of this complex player can be complete unless it touches on his less admirable side and it is unfortunate that Lehmann's embarrassing antics disguise his improved level of performance. His tendency to overreact when challenged by opposing players is infuriating at times, but he has this stern repost to those who have accused him of play acting in the past.

'No one in the media can judge the way I behave on the pitch because they haven't experienced playing the game in the Premiership,' states the quietly spoken keeper who was recently installed as Germany's No.1 for the upcoming World Cup finals.

'When you come out to claim the ball in England, you have guys coming at you punching and elbowing you in the ribs. You are expected not to respond, but I found it tough to accept and this is why sometimes I get into some arguments.

'It took time to accept things were different here. If I feel I'm not being protected by the referees, I have to make them aware of what is happening to me and in the last couple of seasons, the referees understand my point of view a little more.

'The way I play, there may be some arguments with players and referees because when you come out of your goal, it can get physical. This is a part of my game and if people don't like it, there is nothing I can do about it.'

The clean cut Ljungberg is never required to answer such cutting insults to his unblemished character as all the questions that flow his way are about the beautiful game he is expecting to be a part of in Paris this week. When he suggests this fixture is just as big as any that will take place at the World Cup this summer, it's easy to appreciate just what victory in this game would mean to him.

'This will be the highlight of my career,' he says. 'Everyone dreams of playing in a Champions League Final and for me, it's just as big as playing in a World Cup Final. I see it as the ultimate fixture you can play in and it should be a perfect match as well.

'We are looking at two teams who can only play good football. That's why people are very excited about what we should see in Paris. Both teams are stronger going forward than at the back, so it should be very exciting. These are the best two teams in the competition this season and whoever wins this game can justifiably claim to be the European Champions.'

An eleventh successive Arsenal clean sheet will go a long way to ensuring it is Arsene Wenger's men celebrating when the final whistle blows and Lehmann is among those surprised by the defensive records established in the last few months.

'To be honest, even I'm a little bit surprised by the record we have built up in the Champions League this season as we have so many young player in the side, but as we see the quality of the team improve every week, the surprise fades a little,' he adds.

'We have learned to defend as a team. Everyone has said for a long time that we play the best football in England and we all remember two seasons ago, when we went unbeaten all year, it was fantastic. Since then, we have worked on the defensive side of the game and that's why we are sitting here now talking about a Champions League Final. It all comes down to hard work on the training ground, so we can be proud of how far we have come.'

Standing just one game from glory, Jens Lehmann and Freddie Ljungberg dare not let this moment pass them by. They can only hope the youthful novices around them come through this toughest of final exams.

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