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Hleb looking forward after Barcelona misery

If Arsene Wenger is on the look-out for a PR man to promote the virtues of staying loyal to the Arsenal cause, he could do worse than handing the position to former Gunners midfielder Alex Hleb.

That statement may seem a little odd when you consider Hleb was one of those who came to the conclusion that Wenger's unshakable conviction that success can flow without signing star names is a doomed policy, when he decided to swap North London for Barcelona last summer.

After proving himself in the Premier League, the chance to join one of the true giants of the world game proved too tempting for Hleb and yet the Belarusian now reflects on the decision as one of the worst of his career.

Going from a first team starter in a side whose place in the Champions League has been assured for over a decade to being a permanent bench warmer in Spain was a major comedown for Hleb and his fall from grace was confirmed when he was offered as a make-weight in the transfer that saw Zlatan Ibrahimovic arrive at the Nou Camp from Inter Milan.

As it turns out, Hleb opted for a return to former club Stuttgart ahead of a switch to join Jose Mourinho at the San Siro, yet the mere fact that he is back at the club where his rise to stardom began at the start of the decade confirms his career has taken a sideways step and he puts that down to his decision to walk away from Arsenal.

"Of course I regret leaving Arsenal," begins an honest Hleb. "I was playing every week for one of the most exciting sides in Europe, a team which was always in the top-four in the Premier League and were Champions League contenders.

"Also, I was being guided by one of the best coaches in the world in Arsene Wenger. I owe him a great deal. I developed a better all-round game under him and I became more robust physically, learnt to look up more and play better passes and generally improved greatly as a team player. No player ever gets worse under Wenger.

"Obviously, I still look out for Arsenal each week and I hope they can do well this time. I think they will be in the top-four again and could even push for the title if they don't have the terrible injuries of last season. People forget the long unbeaten run they had after Christmas last season, which was a good sign for this season.

"For me, leaving Arsenal was not a good move. A footballer only exists when he takes to the field and makes a proper contribution to the team and even though I was part of a Barca squad that was almost unstoppable, it was hard not to feel detached from all the happiness and celebration at the end.

"Barca were my dream club as a kid, but I couldn't continue with them if the chance to play was not coming. I'm 28 and who knows how much time I've left in the game. I needed to move on and the chance to go back to a place that I feel happy in was the best solution."

In many ways, Hleb was the Wenger's ideal player. Comfortable on the ball and bursting with invention, his breaking runs from the midfield fitted neatly into a side that have the ability and class to pick out a player who times his charge to perfection. As it turned out, one of the few men Wenger has spent big money on in recent years probably caught the eye a little too much at Arsenal as he attracted the attentions of Barcelona as a result.

Now Hleb insists he is happy to be back in Germany and explains the chance to rejoin Stuttgart was more appealing than switch to Italy that was being forced upon him. "It was more a pro-Stuttgart than an anti-Inter decision," he explains. "I was coming off the back of a season almost entirely spent on the bench at Barca and just wanted to go to a team where I was completely comfortable and could play regularly.

"I had five very happy years at Stuttgart and know the club well, so no one needed to tell me how ambitious they are. If all goes according to plan, we will qualify for the Champions League and should be able to challenge for the Bundesliga title.

"I needed to bounce back at the first possible opportunity and returning to Stuttgart is a low-risk way of setting about it as this club is like home to me. Even though Bayern Munich showed interest in me and I was tempted, Stuttgart's offer overrode everything."

New Stuttgart coach Markus Babbel has certainly pulled off a transfer coup in bring Hleb back to the club and the midfielder admits the presence of his former team-mate played a role in his decision to return. "I played alongside him during my first spell at Stuttgart and he struck me then as a super pro, someone with great footballing instincts, who thought deeply about the game," he says.

"I'm not surprised he has turned out to be a good coach and all the players here are left in no doubt as to what is expected of us. We know who is in charge, but somehow he manages to have a close relationship with us. All the players feel important, from the senior man to the youth team graduate.

"Obviously, people doubt Stuttgart now that Mario Gomez has left because he was a goal machine, but we still have plenty of attacking options and I don't think goals will be an issue. This is an attack-minded side and my job is to make sure the front-men are well supplied with chances."

Hleb has been reunited with former Arsenal team-mate Jens Lehmann at Stuttgart and insists the veteran keeper still has plenty to offer at the top level. "I always got on well with Jens," he states. "People see the intense guy on the pitch and assume he's the same away from the stadium.

"He was one of the most important players at Arsenal and it's similar at Stuttgart. Jens means leadership and the will to win. Even at 40, he's not lost his reflexes or his command of the box."

Barcelona target Cesc Fabregas is among those who could look at Hleb's situation and come to the conclusion that leaving Arsenal is not always the best way to take a step forward in your career. While Wenger's side do not look likely to be challenging for too many trophies in the coming months at this moment in time, this is a manager whose powers of reinvention should never be under-estimated.

With Hleb clearly longing for the days when he pulled on the red of Arsenal, you have to wonder why Wenger was not tempted to bring him back to London this summer, yet the Arsenal boss seems unwilling to dip back into history. As Gunners legend Patrick Vieira discovered last week, Arsenal comebacks are not something Wenger seems content to sanction.

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