Hleb on the fast track to Arsenal stalwart status

Man from Minsk settles quickly to the bustle of life in London and the Premiership
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The Independent Online

After 10 seasons in this country, Arsène Wenger is growing used to the ways of English football. He still finds it hard to accept the physical batterings occasionally administered to his team, and the demands placed on successful ones; but he manages to smile when musing upon how every other Champions' League semi-finalist played their weekend match on Good Friday, while Arsenal were forced to play on Wednesday at Portsmouth, then yesterday: "In England, instead of giving you one game less they give you one game more!"

For Alexander Hleb, late of Bate Borisov in his native Belarus and then Vfb Stuttgart, all this is still comparatively new. Yet he, too, has a smile on his face, having overcome a testing start to his first season of Premiership football to emerge as one of the key figures in the club's best European Cup run.

Wenger estimates that any foreign player, however experienced, can take six months to adapt. The physical aspect and lack of protection from referees take them aback, so Arsenal supporters checking out the slim, almost fragile-looking Hleb must have feared for his wellbeing among the hard men of the Premiership.

In fact, he insists that he can take care of himself and that the main difference from an essentially similar type of football to Germany's Bundesliga is the relentless pace: "Yes, it was very difficult in the beginning. The football here is very quick, the quickest in the world. Germany was also physical, but more like... [he makes a digging motion with the elbow]. Here it is hard football but they are more like men."

Still a teenager when he was transferred to Stuttgart, he had five seasons there, coming up against Manchester United and Chelsea in the Champions' League and developing a taste for England after appearing in front of capacity crowds at Old Trafford and Stamford Bridge. Other clubs around Europe were interested, but once he knew Arsenal were keen, there was no other choice. He even accepted the No 13 shirt with equanimity, the concept of unlucky 13 not existing in his culture. "English teams fight for 90 minutes and I find that very good. You can beat the top team or lose to the bottom one, everything is possible. But Arsenal don't play typical English football. I like their passing style, with the one-twos and movement."

He soon found that he liked the manager, too: "I've never met a coach like him. He's simply a professor. He doesn't say much, but whatever he says is always good sense, hits the nail on the head." So much so that Hleb, used to playing in central midfield for Stuttgart and his country, accepted without demur a role wide on the right, and is now picked there ahead of Fredrik Ljungberg and Robert Pires, who once seemed as much a part of the Highbury furniture as the North Bank and Clock End.

With a strong left foot, he has proved particularly adept at cutting inside - he scored Arsenal's first in their 3-1 win yesterday - while maintaining the defensive discipline necessary to support either Lauren or, more recently, the astonishingly mature Emmanuel Eboué behind him. Wenger admires his dribbling skills and an ability to play the final, killer pass, and now calls him "the player we bought, even stronger and better".

An important part of the settling-in process, of course, takes place off the field and has now been completed. Hleb loves London and will be even happier if his younger brother can obtain a work permit to leave his Minsk club and join Vladimir Romanov's flying circus at Hearts.

To the immense pride of their parents, already gratified when Alexander was named Sportsman of the Year in Belarus, the younger Vyacheslav has recently joined him in the national team; a side who, though placed fifth in their World Cup qualifying group, were not disgraced, winning away to Scotland and losing to Italy 4-3 in the final minute.

"My brother has played for the national team as a forward, and now he has to get the right percentage of games [for a work permit]. Edinburgh is not so far from London. It was difficult in London at first, the whole world seems to be here and it is so hectic. The manager said every player who comes finds it hard at first but then they don't want to leave. It's a fantastic city; I'm so happy here."

His mood, like that of everyone else at Highbury, will nevertheless be determined by three games in the course of the next 10 days, with the derby against fourth-placed Tottenham sandwiched in between two semi-final matches with Villarreal.

Having missed the 1-1 draw at White Hart Lane last October through injury, he is keen to be involved on Saturday, the concept of the local derby having rather passed him by in Stuttgart and Minsk: "That's quite new to me. To have one city with all those clubs in is unbelievable. But it's good, you don't have to fly to so many games and the atmosphere is fantastic. My friends come over from Germany and can't believe it. We'll do everything we can to get fourth place, but we mustn't look at Tottenham or Blackburn, just concentrate on our own game. We think we can do it."

The same goes, naturally, for the Champions' League. Had Chelsea not squeezed out Stuttgart 1-0 with an own goal two years ago, Hleb would have been due to play Arsenal in the quarter-final. Now his fine performances against Real Madrid and then Juventus have helped them go one step beyond in what everyone had marked down as a season of mere transition. "I've seen Villarreal a couple of times. They are a good team technically who play with discipline. They play together as a team and have shown they can beat anybody."

Wenger sees Villarreal as "a mixture of South American and Spanish, more South American with their tactical tricks and knowledge, slowing the game and waiting for a weak moment. They look sound defensively and have [Juan Roman] Riquelme as a kind of quarter-back and [Diego] Forlan as a runner".

A shame, then, that the mercurial Cesc Fabregas, so important at home to Juventus, may be absent with a foot injury. Even Wenger, not given to playing up the importance of individuals, admits: "We'd miss him. We have to dictate an English pace." No English players, but a team of probably eight nationalities; in which the man from Minsk will play his full part.

SEMI-FINALS

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