Wenger, Henry hail 'magnificent' Lehmann

April 25, 2006

Arsene Wenger hailed his 'poker-faced' penalty hero Jens Lehmann after the German led Arsenal into the European Cup final.

Empics / JohnWaltonDiego Forlan and Aleksander Hleb battle for the ball.

Lehmann saved a last-minute spot-kick from Riquelme to secure a 0-0 draw against Villarreal, which was good enough to put the Gunners into the final against Barcelona or AC Milan on May 17.

Wenger said: 'It looked like a generous penalty decision but then I said to myself that if it is our year, Jens will save it.

'I knew he had strength of character, and I knew he would not be beaten easily and there was a lot of pressure on Riquelme and fatigue.

'I felt he just wanted to hit the target and not put it in a corner because he was scared to miss.

'It comes down to psychological reason and Jens guessed right. Overall it was more of a poker game than good training.'

Lehmann was out of the team last year and looked to be heading out of Highbury but suddenly he is the golden boy.

Wenger joked: 'Maybe I made a good decision to drop him last year.

'I am pleased because when a guy shows professionalism and a winning attitude, you always want him to be rewarded.

'When I think where he started when he came to England, and the steps he has made since, he deserved a lot of credit.'

Arsenal were never at their best and Villarreal heaped pressure on them, missing several chances before the crucial penalty given for a push by Gael Clichy.

Wenger said: 'I was worried. We have shown character and resilience but we did not find our game.

'Going forward we were always losing the ball too quickly and that was down to Villarreal's quality and we seemed to be suffering a little bit physically.

'We just wanted so much to go to the final. In the end there was a bit of luck and a lot of character that we have gone through.

'We will see a different Arsenal team in the final. We will recover physically and no matter what happens we have everything to win. We will give it our best shot. I believe we can do it.'

He also praised Sol Campbell who was playing his first full 90 minutes in nearly three months and was cut on the head by a missile thrown from the crowd in the second half.

Wenger said: 'Sol had a good game. He was always under pressure and could never relax. Look at how long he has been out, and the way he played and I am very happy with him.'

The Arsenal manager will head back to his native France for the final next month.

Wenger said: 'the last time there was a final in Paris it was two Spanish teams in it and before the game I was concerned because I thought it could be the same again.

'But now I am very happy. I would go anywhere in the world to play a Champions League final but it will cost me a few more tickets in Paris.'

Villarreal boss Manuel Pellegrini was devastated after his team crashed out despite coming so close.

Pellegrini said: 'It's hard to explain how I feel. We were the better team, better than Arsenal were at Highbury and we deserved to be in the final.

'We had four or five chances to score and then the penalty and up until the last minute I thought we were going to do it.

'My players are very sad. I am proud of the way they played but they couldn't make it.'

Lehmann revealed he had studied Riquelme's technique which gave him an edge tonight.

'A couple of days ago I was thinking on Riquelme because he was likely to take a possible penalty,' said the keeper, who helped Arsenal win the FA Cup on penalties last year and also starred for Schalke when they claimed the 1997 UEFA Cup on spot-kicks.

'I said to myself that if he was going to take it then probably I am going to go to my left because from his body shape he seems to be a player who goes to the left - and I was lucky on that.'

Lehmann revealed he had not opted to follow the advice of his captain Thierry Henry, adding: 'He gave me a tip but I did not follow him.'

Clichy felt the penalty award had been harsh, and was clearly delighted Lehmann had pulled off a brilliant save.

The young defender declared: 'If you ask me who my favourite player is in the world at the moment, I would say Lehmann.'

The German keeper admitted tonight had been a rollercoaster ride.

The 36-year-old reflected: 'In football it is very close to being in hell and then to rise into heaven. That happened to us today.'