Role in final signals end of Djourou's nightmare

Johan Djourou has never played at Wembley, which is one reason he was so thrilled to be told he will be part of Arsenal's defence in the Carling Cup final this afternoon. The other is that a year ago the question in his mind was whether he would recover sufficiently from a serious knee injury to reach that sort of level or anything like it again.

"Nightmare" is the word he uses to describe the period between suffering the injury in May 2009 and returning at last as a substitute in the final game of last season. As Arsène Wenger points out, losing that much of a footballer's career is the equivalent to six years of normal life without being able to function. "I've seen him suffer after the surgery, not being capable to walk," Wenger said on Friday. "And seen him work with dedication for months. He has never shown one day of not wanting it any more. If you'd have asked me at the start of this season would he play so many games, I'd have said 'no chance' so he deserves credit."

Whatever a cynical public may believe about over-paid performers, the vast majority of players want to be in the dressing-room and doing their bit, as Djourou confirmed after training on Friday. "For anyone who loves what he's doing, to be unable to is just a handicap. I had to fight really hard to come back, the physio here was amazing and so I'm just happy to be here now. I never had any doubt about coming back but you are always thinking 'am I going to be able to come back to my best?' because some players come back and are never the same. That's the worry. The hardest part is just watching your team-mates play or watching on TV."

From time to time he could not bear to do that. Then in the very last game of the season at home to Fulham, Wenger used a clever piece of psychology in sending him on for half an hour before the long summer break. As is often the case, injury to another – Thomas Vermaelen – has offered a chance, hence Djourou's 27 appearances this season.

Born in Abidjan, he moved to Geneva when less than two years old and played at the 2006 World Cup alongside Philippe Senderos for Switzerland, rather than Kolo Touré for the Ivory Coast. He joined Arsenal's academy at 16 and as part of his education was sent on loan to today's opponents, Birmingham, where he valued the new experience of playing in a team at the wrong end of the League and using a much more direct style. The 1-0 victory over Stoke City suggested Arsenal are learning how to counter such an approach, and Wenger says Birmingham will pose similar tactical problems.

"That's how they play," said Djourou. "You play a game like a derby against Aston Villa and it's a different kind of football. They've got good strikers but it's down to us to play our football and if we keep to our philosophy we can be unstoppable at times."

All they need to do, then, is win something. "Fans want a club to win trophies and we've got a better chance to achieve these things than maybe before." As the only club still theoretically chasing a quadruple – today's game, after Barcelona, Leyton Orient and Stoke, is the fourth in succession in different competitions – Arsenal hope first to end six years of hurt and then use the success as a springboard.

"Why should we limit our ambition now?" Wenger asked rhetorically. "At the end of February we are in a strong position. You don't expect me to say 'we want to win this trophy and then the season is over'. There is so much at stake still."

The Carling Cup final is on Sky Sports 1 and HD1 today, kick-off 4pm

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