The Times April 26, 2006
Hero: Arsenal goalkepper Lehmann saves Requelme's 89th minute penalty.
From Matt Hughes in Vila-Real
He stops late penalty
Goalless draw enough for Arsenal
AFTER watching Jens Lehmann save an 89th-minute penalty to take Arsenal through to the Champions League final, Arsène Wenger believes that his side’s name is on the trophy. On a nerve-shredding night in southern Spain, the visiting team held theirs when it mattered most to get the goalless draw that preserved their 1-0 first-leg lead against Villarreal, giving Wenger a romantic date in Paris on May 17. That Thierry Henry could face his suitors Barcelona, who lead AC Milan 1-0 ahead of tonight’s second leg in the Nou Camp, only increases the sense of a date of destiny.
Arsenal’s progress in this competition has resembled a fairytale throughout, though it took the outstanding efforts of Lehmann to prevent the dream turning into a nightmare. Having repelled the utterly dominant Spaniards all evening he faced one final test of strength, standing firm after Villarreal had been given a fortunate penalty for Gaël Clichy’s challenge on José Mari.
“I thought to myself ‘if it’s our year, Jens will save it,’ ” Wenger said. “Maybe the strength of character of Jens came through. I knew he would not be beaten easily. We go to the final and you will see a different Arsenal team.
“There was always a big doubt about Arsenal in Europe, even when we were dominating the championship. I’m happy we got through when nobody expected us to. We knocked out Real Madrid, Juventus and Villarreal and I believe we can win the final. I would say it completes the work of nine-and-a-half years. The best way to reward them now is to go to the final and win it.”
As a German goalkeeper, Lehmann makes an unlikely hero for what remains — no matter what the Little Englanders say — an English club, but he does have previous. The 36-year-old’s save from Paul Scholes helped Arsenal to win the FA Cup on penalties last May, while he also won the Uefa Cup for Schalke 04 in a 1997 shoot-out. The madcap antics that caused him to be dropped for the hapless Manuel Almun ia last season now seem a long time ago.
“What he has done tonight shows what a great goalkeeper he has been all season,” Wenger said. “When you think where he started when he came to England and the steps he has made he deserves a lot of credit. I made the right decision dropping him last season.”
Lehmann put it more colourfully, as is his wont — “When you’re in football you can be very close to being in hell, but can rise to heaven just like that,” he said — while Clichy’s words epitomised his relief. “If you ask me who is my favourite player in the world at the minute, it’s Jens Lehmann,” the young French defender said.
Wenger admitted that his side were slightly fortunate to progress, having failed to find their usual fluency, though their ecstatic fans will not be worried.
Tottenham Hotspur supporters may be, though, with the danger of Arsenal stealing their Champions League place a distinct possibility.
“I was worried, but we’ve shown a lot of character and resilience tonight,” Wenger said. “With a little bit of luck and a lot of character we’ve gone through.
“I’m happy to be in Paris. I thought before the game it was a bad sign because the last final in Paris was between two Spanish teams. I’m very happy, but would go anywhere in the world to play in a Champions League final. It will cost me a few more tickets to play in Paris.”
After enduring a tortuous time in a club built on the ceramic industry, Arsenal fans deserved their night on the tiles and will look forward to getting plastered in Paris.