Lauren: 'The main aim is the Champions' League. This is Arsenal's year'

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Lauren Bisan-Etame-Mayer didn't play for Arsenal against Bolton Wanderers on Saturday; a knee injury kept him out. Had he played, then perhaps, as right-back, he would have thwarted the run by Stelios Giannakopoulos which led to Bolton's winning goal. Who knows? At any rate, it may be significant that Arsenal's most consistent defender this season was missing on the day of a devastating third Premiership defeat.

Lauren Bisan-Etame-Mayer didn't play for Arsenal against Bolton Wanderers on Saturday; a knee injury kept him out. Had he played, then perhaps, as right-back, he would have thwarted the run by Stelios Giannakopoulos which led to Bolton's winning goal. Who knows? At any rate, it may be significant that Arsenal's most consistent defender this season was missing on the day of a devastating third Premiership defeat.

Lauren is likely to be back for the match against Manchester United at Highbury in a fortnight's time. Saturday's result loaded the United match with even more significance than it already had; if anyone can now overhaul Chelsea, it will surely be the team which extracts three points from that fixture. But Arsenal v United was already the source of huge anticipation, not to say apprehension.

It wasn't Lauren who caused Sir Alex Ferguson to get more literally souped-up than usual in the Old Trafford tunnel in October, a controversy which the Manchester United manager reignited in these pages on Saturday.

Lauren didn't see any soup or pizza being chucked, and thinks that just because it was Arsenal involved, the affair has been blown out of all proportion. This begs two questions: one, if he didn't see the incident, how does he know it was blown out of proportion? Two, does this combination of myopia and paranoia mean that he will go on to become a great manager?

There is certainly more to Lauren than meets the eye, although what does meet the eye is impressive enough. He is a striking-looking man, with huge, wide-set eyes and a smile that could illuminate Finsbury Park at dusk.

For much of his 27 years, however, there has been nothing much to smile about. Indeed, he was lucky even to be born.

In 1977, his father Valentin was a political prisoner in Equatorial Guinea, the tiny, benighted country which more recently has so interested Sir Mark Thatcher. Valentin was on a list of people awaiting execution, on the orders of the country's brutal dictator President Macias Nguerra, but was sprung from jail by his brother, who was in the army. The family, with Valentin's wife pregnant with Lauren, then escaped across the border to Cameroon. Lauren was born there, which is why in international football he represented Cameroon, winning an Olympic gold medal in 2000. But he had to learn French to communicate with his team-mates. Equatorial Guinea was a Spanish colony, and when he was just a few years old his family moved briefly to Madrid and then to Seville.

In the tough Seville neighbourhood of Montequinto they shared two adjacent apartments, which sounds comfortable enough, except that Lauren was one of 15 brothers.

"My father had a good job, working for the government of Andalucia, but the money never lasted until the end of the month. From the first to the 10th we were OK, but from then until the end of the month you had to look after yourself. I did not very good things. I was in trouble with the police many times. I got away from that just at the right moment."

He is not the only highly paid Premiership footballer with a criminal past, but there can't be many who actually had to steel to survive. Lauren declines to delve any further into that part of his past, and is similarly reticent about his future. His contract at Arsenal finishes in May and Real Madrid, who tried to sign him ahead of Arsenal five years ago, are reportedly interested again. But at first when I bring this up he merely laughs, long and hard. "I am very happy here," he says, finally.

He has a heavy Spanish accent but his command of English is good. "I want to stay here as long as possible. Yes, my contract is up in May, but I am positive, I think we will reach an agreement."

His advisers will doubtless be asking for considerably better terms. His reported weekly wage of around £20,000 might make him wealthier than anything he could have dreamt of back in Montequinto, but it also makes him one of the lowest-paid of Arsenal's first-team regulars. He is among the least well-known, too, to the extent that his nickname at Highbury - Ralphie, after the fashion designer - is based on an unwitting mispronunciation of Lauren; the first syllable should rhyme with "cow". But relative anonymity suits him perfectly. "It is normal for a defender," he says. "It should be the others who get the headlines."

We are talking in a classroom at Arsenal's training ground near London Colney, in the lee of the M25. A classroom is not necessarily what you would expect to find at a football club training ground but that is manifestly what it is. There is an exercise on the blackboard, and while I am waiting for Lauren I flick through a worksheet on different types of stress which has been filled in by a player presumably on the fringes of the first-team squad. Asked for his own most stressful moment, this anonymous player writes: "The first time I practised with the first team, and played against Sol Campbell".

Campbell must indeed be a formidable opponent, yet he and the rest of the Arsenal defence have been unusually vulnerable so far this season; 25 goals conceded is almost twice as many as Manchester United, and more than three times as many as Chelsea. Lauren, though, has repeatedly been the pick of the back four, and was plainly missed at the Reebok Stadium on Saturday evening.

It seems appropriate in a classroom to ask him whether he has done any homework himself on Arsenal's defensive past. Does he know much about the famous back four of the 1990s?

"Yes," he says, smiling, and mutters the names almost like an incantation: "Lee Dixon, Tony Adams, Steve Bould, Nigel Winterburn." Does he think Lauren, Campbell, Touré and Cole sounds as good? A peal of delighted laughter. "Yes."

Since he arrived from Real Mallorca, he adds, Arsène Wenger has made him a much better player. "He has helped me with psychology, technically, with position on the pitch. He has spent a lot of time with me, like he does with 99 per cent of the players. He knows what we need, every one of us. He sees us when we are down, and he always knows what to tell us. Even if there is a problem at home, nothing to do with football, you can go to him and get good advice. I don't think you get that from other managers. I have never seen it before, anyway, and I have played for four clubs."

At the beginning of his career, with Seville and then Levante, Lauren played in midfield. But when Mallorca were drawn against Barcelona in the Spanish Cup, he was thrown into the deepest of deep ends; manager Hector Cuper asked him to play at right-back, with responsibility for marking Rivaldo. Mallorca held Barcelona to a draw at home, then won in the Nou Camp, and Lauren played a blinder in both games. At his home in Totteridge, north London, Wenger sat up and took notice.

"But at Mallorca we played five at the back," Lauren continues. "We used to play on the counter-attack. Here I have had to learn playing in a line of four, where the responsibility for the team to play well starts at the back. Also, the tempo in Spain is slower. But I am used to the quicker game now, which is why I have got forward more this season. I know when to go, and when to stay."

He is still sometimes pushed into the Arsenal midfield, but declares himself most comfortable at right-back. In England, he says, his trickiest opponents have been Ryan Giggs and Damien Duff. As for the world's best in his own position, he unhesitatingly picks Cafu. "I've been watching him since I was a kid. He's got everything; power, big lungs, he crosses the ball well, and he's still playing well at 34 years. Incredible."

His own considerable ability, as well as his experience of Premiership football, has given him stature among Arsenal's recent recruits from La Liga. Clearly, he enjoys playing the elder statesman. "When you come to England from Spain you need help to settle. I had that from Patrick [Vieira] and others, and so I do my best to make them feel at home here. I go out to restaurants with them, and invite them to my house. My wife has cooked paella for [Cesc] Fabregas, and [Manuel] Almunia has been twice. [Jose Antonio] Reyes didn't come yet, but he was invited."

A few reassuring words of Spanish must have been particularly welcome, I venture, to Almunia, whose goalkeeping has been more than a little erratic. This was prescient of me; little more than 24 hours later, some were blaming Almunia for the goal at Bolton. But this time Lauren frowns.

"In his first few games he was a bit insecure, yes, but since then he has improved a lot. There is a big responsibility for goalkeepers here, because there has been doubt about the position since David Seaman left. I played with Seaman for three seasons and he was very good, not just on the pitch but in the dressing-room. Before the game he used to talk to me and Ashley Cole, telling us to be ourselves, saying the things that young players need to hear. But I think Almunia can also be very good for Arsenal.

"In the long term he will be the club's No 1, I think." Ahead of Jens Lehmann, in other words? Lauren roars with laughter, and does some deft backpedalling. "I can't say that he is better. They are two great keepers."

He is being admirably supportive of his team-mates, yet Lauren it was whose scrap with Vieira following the Champions' League match against Rosenborg last September reportedly had to be broken up by Norwegian police, who were even forced to board the team bus. The Arsenal captain had by all accounts blamed his right-back for the Rosenborg goal, and Lauren wasn't having it. The subsequent fisticuffs showed that things were far from harmonious in the Arsenal dressing-room.

Another frown. This is not his favourite topic. "It happens. It is a normal part of football, and it is in the past. It wasn't the first time and it won't be the last. Patrick is a very good friend of mine. And the spirit inside the dressing-room is fantastic. The manager has created that and I have seen it get even better since I came. There is no tension at all. People say we have got worse, but in fact it means that we are playing normally again, because our standards earlier this season were so fantastic. It is impossible to maintain that. We are only human beings. But we will get there again."

But will Arsenal scale such heights in time to catch Chelsea? "We know that Chelsea are a very good team playing well, but they will lose points," he says, albeit a day before the gap between first and second was extended even further, to 10 points. "I think we can catch them, definitely. But the main ambition this season is the Champions' League. Everyone at the club is more concerned about that than anything else. And I think that, after Rosenborg, this is going to be our year."

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