Henry claims Lehmann talk show forced Riquelme to fluff his lines

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The Independent Online

It was the save that won Arsenal a place in the European Cup final and Thierry Henry has revealed how he believes his conversation with Jens Lehmann moments before Juan Roman Riquelme's penalty-kick for Villarreal on Tuesday night was the key to the German goalkeeper's success - even though he ignored Henry's advice.

With 88 minutes gone, Riquelme stepped up to strike a shot to Lehmann's left, only for the Arsenal goalkeeper to guess correctly and palm the ball out to earn Arsenal a 1-0 aggregate win over Villarreal in the Champions' League semi-final and a place at the Stade de France in Paris on 17 May. The Argentinian playmaker had, Henry said, been put off by the discussion he had with his goalkeeper in the seconds before the spot-kick.

Henry's account of those crucial moments was complex enough to take in double bluff and Paolo Di Canio's penalty strategy but essentially it came down to one issue: he believed that when Riquelme saw the two men talking, the Argentinian changed his penalty strategy, with disastrous consequences for Villarreal.

"There was a penalty against Charlton and I knew that Di Canio would sometimes chip the ball from the penalty spot down the middle," Henry said. "On that day I didn't speak to Jens about it. After the game I said to Di Canio, 'If you had seen me talking to the keeper would you have changed your plan?' He said, 'Yes'.

"I've seen Riquelme taking penalties and when it was an important one he put it right in the middle, waiting for the keeper to dive. So I told Jens that usually when Riquelme's under pressure and he's scared he puts it in the middle. So maybe when he saw me talking to Jens he thought that's what I was saying to him. Maybe, therefore, he changed.

"I don't know if it was a double bluff but things like that can help. If I play against someone I know and he goes to speak to the keeper I think, 'What did he say?'"

A remarkable explanation for a remarkable finale. In any event, Lehmann ignored Henry's advice, dived left and booked himself a place in the pantheon of Arsenal greats. Reflecting further on his own intervention, Henry added: "I'm glad Jens ignored my advice. I said that to him after the game in the dressing-room." On the wider question of how a place in the European Cup final would affect Henry's future, the Arsenal captain was not for discussing. However, the club's vice-chairman, David Dein, said yesterday that he hoped the Frenchman's decision would not be "dependent on one game".

Dein said: "Thierry knows that we want him to stay, the fans want him to stay. He can see that the club is very ambitious. There is something very special going on at Arsenal. We're building a magnificent stadium for 60,000 people. We've got a lot of youngsters. We're building well for the future and we want Thierry to be part of that."

Henry has called upon his team-mates for one final, extraordinary performance in Paris, after their drab display against Villarreal, to win the last major prize in world football that has eluded him. "I'm very proud to be the first Arsenal captain in the final, but I want to be the first to lift the trophy," he said. "That's when you make history. We've made history by getting to the final but the history we're looking for is to [win it].

"Everyone will remember what we have done and the teams we have knocked out. But I am a winner. We are going there to win it. Walking out at the Stade de France as the skipper will be a new experience. I come from the suburb in Paris and it's a great story. But even if it was at another stadium the emotion would have been the same. It's going to be a very proud moment to lead the team out but the real moment will be to lift the Cup."

The hero was Lehmann, who said that his preparation watching videos of Riquelme had convinced him he should ignore Henry's advice. "After the penalty I did say something to Riquelme but I don't want to say what," Lehmann said. "Gaël [Clichy, who conceded the penalty] was over the moon. I don't think it was a deserved penalty.

"Ask Riquelme if I psyched him out. He took a long breath before the penalty, maybe too long. I like to make people happy but I can't compare with David [Seaman]. He's an England legend. He played for his country many times and did a lot for this club. But I am here, a part-time keeper who doesn't know how long he will be here. I came to win trophies and I will try to achieve that."

Pires samples Villarreal atmosphere

Robert Pires has confirmed he is weighing up a move to Villarreal. The Arsenal midfielder, who played a part in the Gunners' semi-final victory over the Spanish club in the Champions' League on Tuesday, said talks have taken place between his agent and Villarreal.

The 32-year-old's contract expires in the summer and he claims to have been offered a two-year deal - as opposed to a one-year offer from the North Londoners.

"It's true that there have been contacts between Villarreal and my agent," Pires said. "I haven't made a decision yet. I have played many years at Arsenal and it's a difficult decision to make. I will have to decide soon."

Pires came off the substitutes' bench in the semi-final second leg to help protect a one-goal cushion from the first tie. The Frenchman added yesterday: "Last night, I discovered Villarreal and its atmosphere."

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