Freddie's dream: Arsenal's casting as dangerous outsiders suits the destiny man

Day of atonement beckons as Ljungberg relishes European chance of a lifetime
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The Independent Online

From Arsenal's first stumbling Champions' League steps at Wembley to a victorious semi-final in Villarreal, Fredrik Ljungberg has seen it all. There have been frustrations in abundance, more altogether than Freddie's hairstyles, but in Paris on Wednesday he has the chance of a footballing lifetime to make up for every one of them.

Of the current squad only Dennis Bergkamp, whose competitive swansong will be in the Stade de France, has seen longer service and of the rest only Thierry Henry, who joined 11 months later than Ljungberg, can beat the little Swedish midfielder's 301 appearances.

Since signing for £3m in September 1998, he has played 59 of those games in the Champions' League. There would have been more but in that first season he was ineligible, having played for Halmstad in the qualifying round, which delayed his move by a couple of months. So he sat and suffered with some 70,000 supporters as Arsenal won only one of their three group matches at Wembley.

The following year, when he was in the team, results at the national stadium were no better; Wednesday's opponents Barcelona put the skids under another campaign with a rampaging 4-2 victory and even though the consolation prize of a Uefa Cup place brought a trip to the final, Ljungberg had broken a rib and had to suffer again.

Progress along the long and winding road since then has been littered with broken dreams lying in the gutters of Valencia (twice), La Coruña, Munich and, worst of all, Highbury after Chelsea's Wayne Bridge punctured serious belief the year before last. "Of course there's been some really horrible defeats where I think we didn't deserve to go out," Ljungberg said. "But in the World Cup or the Champions' League you need some luck and sometimes we have it and sometimes we don't. Chelsea, for instance, scored against us with about two minutes to go and it's quite difficult to do something in those two minutes. It's been hard but now we're in the final. Every player dreams of playing a Champions' League final. It gets bigger and bigger every year. I would say it's now about the same as playing a World Cup final."

The irony being that Arsenal should finally have made it in a season in which they will finish lower than at any time since Arsène Wenger, let alone Ljungberg, first walked down Avenell Road. "It's a bit of a surprise of course but I think we've played really good and in the League we've struggled a bit when we've played really physical teams. Maybe in the Champions' League you're not allowed to play as physical and that has suited us."

Or is it, as he goes on to suggest, not an irony at all, because being underrated has helped? "Maybe in the past we've been favourites and this year people have seen us as underdogs because we haven't done as well in the League. In the past a lot of teams tried to stop us fom playing football and didn't play their own football. This year they think 'we'll beat Arsenal, we'll play our game' and that suited us quite well. The way we pass and play, we've been able to go at them."

Going at Barcelona will require nerve and self-confidence, but Milan in the semi-final and Chelsea before that proved they are vulnerable, especially to pace like Henry's. Since Alexander Hleb began to make an impression out wide on the right, Ljungberg has been used inside, back in the old position he relished at Halmstad. Sitting in the centre with Cesc Fabregas and Gilberto Silva, he can ensure that Arsenal are not outnumbered by Edmilson, Deco and the lesser-known Iniesta, who was outstanding in the last round. Then, when in possession, Ljungberg and Fabregas must pressurise the centre of Barcelona defence by supplying Henry and whichever young blood Wenger prefers out of Jose Antonio Reyes or Robin van Persie.

The manager has not lacked faith in his youngsters, or the rest of the squad, even without Patrick Vieira's guiding hand in the centre of the field. He went so far as to suggest before the scrambled last-minute victory at home to little FC Thun in September that his new Arsenal could become champions of Europe. "You thought I was crazy," he reminded the sceptics last Thursday. "We were out of the championship race very early and somehow I always thought the team had chosen this competition, subconsciously maybe, thinking we would come back into fourth spot [in the Premiership]."

So they did, ahead of the poor Tottenham Trotspurs, in a tearfully emotional Highbury farewell a week ago. Having qualified for the Champions' League again next season lifts a huge burden from the side on Wednesday that, Wenger says, Middlesbrough found too heavy in their Uefa final: "It will enable us to play with less negative pressure. I feel Middlesbrough played with the idea that if they did not win they would not be in Europe next season. They played with the handbrake on in the first half."

Will Arsenal be confident enough to place a foot on the accelerator rather than the brake? In that Uefa Cup final and last season's FA Cup final, both of which finished goalless, they were too cautious, Wenger revealing that despite having won on penalties in Cardiff, he returned home halfway through his family holiday to study the tape "because still I could not understand one month later how we could have been so bad". His instinct was never to use a 4-5-1 formation again, but the difference this season is that the lone striker has been Henry (absent in Cardiff through injury) and not the misused Dennis Bergkamp. "I thought we would have a little bit more security in Europe by adding one more in central midfield."

That strategy has been responsible for the remarkable new record of ten successive games without conceding a goal, though it is worth noting that in the last eight of them Arsenal have scored only five times. Barcelona's abundant attacking flair will provide the greatest test yet for a defence in which Ashley Cole and Sol Campbell are being relied upon for the mature experience to complement the youthful exuberance of Emmanuel Eboué and Kolo Touré. It could become cat-and-mouse, or develop into one of the great European finals, depending, Wenger believes, on how early the first goal comes.

"Like many finals, [for] as long as nobody scores, it's quite locked and could be disappointing. Once one team score, it will certainly be an open and a crazy game. Barcelona are the super-favourites and we are a dangerous outsider." Freddie and his dreamers will settle for that.

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