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Last Updated: Wednesday, 26 April 2006, 12:10 GMT 13:10 UK
Why Arsenal came good in Europe
By Paul Fletcher

So Arsenal will contest their first Champions League final at the Stade de France in Paris on 17 May.

It has been a triumphant and, for many, unexpected season of success in the competition for Arsene Wenger's team.

But has Arsenal's route to the final been more about the right breaks at the right time or Wenger's new Gunners coming good?

TEN CLEAN SHEETS

There is no doubt that 10 consecutive clean sheets is a key reason why Arsenal have reached the final.

Arsenal's goal has not been breached since Markus Rosenberg scored for Ajax on 27 September.

It is a Champions League record and Jens Lehmann must take his share of the credit.

The German's late penalty save at Villarreal on Tuesday preserved Arsenal's slender 1-0 aggregate lead - and Lehmann has been superb behind an inexperienced defence throughout the competition.

Jens Lenhamm saves a penalty from Juan Roman Riquelme against Villarreal
Lehmann was superb against Villarreal

Last season he was dropped by Arsene Wenger, who claimed he was not sure whether Lehmann or Manuel Almunia was his first choice goalkeeper.

This campaign there has been no doubt as to Lehamnn's status - with his form also leading Germany coach Jurgen Klinsmann to name him as his country's number one for the World Cup.

In the absence of Sol Campbell, Kolo Toure has also matured into the lynchpin at the centre of Arsenal's defence.

The Ivorian has been monumental in Europe, dominating forwards with his pace, strength and determination - and scoring the goal that beat Villarreal.

Mention must also be made of Brazilian midfielder Gilberto Silva.

He was superb in Villarreal on Tuesday and his defensive midfield displays have negated the loss of Partick Vieira - a considerable achievement.

THE YOUNG BREED

If Gilberto's performances mean that Vieira has not been missed as a defensive midfielder, then the same could be said of Cesc Fabregas with regard to Arsenal's creative capabilities.

The 18-year-old Spaniard might have found himself bullied at times in the Premiership but he has illuminated Europe.

Arsenal's Emmanuel Eboue (left) reaches the ball before Juventus' Giorgio Chiellini
Eboue has brought energy and verve to the Arsenal team

With his touch, vision and passing he has been the conduit through which Arsenal's attacking game has flowed.

He has outshone some of Europe's most highly-regarded midfield players, none more so than Vieira, his former midfield mentor.

Then there is the defence.

Arsenal have reached the final after playing most of the competition without Ashley Cole and Lauren - their first-choice full-backs.

Mathieu Flamini, 22, has proved to be an extremely capable left-back while Emmanuel Eboue, also 22 and brought to the club from Beveren in January 2005, has been sensational.

His incredible bursts forward have epitomised the energy and enthusiasm of Arsenal's campaign.

Central defender Phillipe Senderos was heavily criticised earlier in the season after struggling to cope with the physicality of Chelsea's Didier Drogba.

But Wenger stuck with the 22-year-old Swiss international and his loyalty has been rewarded with a series of consistent displays in Europe.

Wenger would never have chosen to go through the latter stages of the competition without so many first-choice defenders.

But the quality of the younger players at the club speaks for itself and Wenger must take credit not only for their purchase but guiding them through through to the final.

THE RIGHT DRAW

Arsenal defeated Real Madrid, Juventus and Villarreal in the knockout stages of the competition.

Real might be one of the giants of the game but they are a pale shadow of the team that defeated Manchester United in a thrilling Champions League quarter-final in 2003.

They have not picked up any silverware since they won the Spanish league that same year and looked liked an ageing team when compared against the verve and spirit of Wenger's young side.

Real Madrid midfielder David Beckham in action against Arsenal
Arsenal brought Real Madrid to their knees

Juventus went into their tie with the Gunners as runaway leaders of Serie A and have still only lost one match this season in the Italian league.

But Fabio Capello's team are, like Real, a team with several players on the wrong side of 30.

Over the last two months Juve have run out of steam, having lost two and drawn seven of their last nine fixtures.

Their seemingly insurmoutable lead at the top of Serie A is now just three points.

Villarreal, though impressive in the competition this year, are about as modest a side as one could hope to play in a Champions League semi-final.

The draw for the group stage was kind as well, pitting Arsenal against Ajax, Sparta Prague and FC Thun.

Wenger said on Tuesday evening that Arsenal have deservedly reached the final - and only the foolish would argue with him - but they could certainly have done a lot worse with the luck of the draw.

IT'S THEIR TURN

Up until now Arsenal have been a disappointment in the Champions League, with a quarter-final finish in 2004 their best finish prior to this season.

Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger
Wenger has guided his side to the final

But a team as good as Arsenal, managed by such a capable coach as Wenger, are bound to come good eventually.

Many did not think it would be this year - and Arsenal's inexperience has certainly been a handicap in the Premiership.

Wenger's team have been found wanting physically at times in the league, particularly away from home, but the more refined conditions of the Champions League have allowed Arsenal to develop and prosper.

Combine with that the odd lucky break that every team needs to win a cup competition - Raul hitting the post at Highbury perhaps, or Riquelme failing from the penalty spot - and it might just be that Arsenal's name is on the cup.




VOTE RESULTS
How would you sum up Arsenal's European run this season?
Right breaks at the right time
35%
New Gunners coming good
65%
34010 Votes Cast
Results are indicative and may not reflect public opinion

Vote now closed


SEE ALSO
Football photos 25/04
25 Apr 06 |  Photo Galleries
Road to Paris
26 Apr 06 |  Photo Galleries


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