'I thought to myself that if Jens saves it, it is our year'

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The Independent Football

As Arsène Wenger waited for Juan Roman Riquelme to take his dramatic 88th-minute penalty last night, one thought, the Arsenal manager admitted, went through his mind: "I thought to myself," he said, "that if Jens [Lehmann] saves this then it is our year."

He will get his chance to put that theory to the test. The German goalkeeper made a thrilling save from the Argentinian's penalty to give Arsenal a 0-0 draw with Villarreal, and a 1-0 win on aggregate, that puts them in their first European Cup final in the club's history in the Stade de France on 17 May. It was the least extraordinary of the ties Arsenal have played against Real Madrid, Juventus and the first leg against Villarreal in the knock-out stages of the competition but it had the most incredible ending.

With Wenger's side just two minutes from the final their luck appeared to have run out when the Russian referee, Valentin Ivanov, gave a dubious penalty for Gaël Clichy's push on Jose Mari. Wenger said: "I felt that it looked like a generous decision. Then I thought to myself, 'If it is our year then Jens will save it'. Maybe it was the strength of character that Jens has but I knew he wouldn't be beaten easily. The fact there was a lot of pressure on Riquelme, and the fatigue, will have helped.

"It is that determination of Jens - and his class. What he did shows us what a great goalkeeper he is and he has been like this all season. I am pleased because, when a guy shows professionalism and a winning attitude, then as a manager you want him to be rewarded. When I think where he started when he came over to England and the steps forward he has made, he deserves a lot of credit."

Lehmann, who helped Arsenal win the FA Cup on penalties last year and also starred for Schalke when they claimed the 1997 Uefa Cup on spot-kicks, said that studying tapes of Riquelme taking penalties had paid off for him - and that he had long decided that the Argentinian would shoot to the goalkeeper's left.

"In football you can be close to hell and then rise to heaven just like that," Lehmann said. "A couple of days ago I thought Riquelme would probably take the penalties and I said to myself that if he took one I would dive to my left because of his body shape. He seems to be a player who goes that way and I was lucky on that.

"Thierry came up to me and gave me some advice but I ignored it and stuck to my plan," Lehmann added.

From Clichy, who conceded the penalty, there was simply relief. "If you ask me who my favourite player in the world is at the moment I would say Jens Lehmann," the Frenchman said.

This has been Wenger's eighth season in the Champions' League but this will be his first time in the final, against Milan or Barcelona who play tonight in Italy with the Catalan side holding a one-goal advantage. The Arsenal manager said that he felt vindicated by his side's performance.

"I am happy because there was always a big doubt over Arsenal in Europe, even when we were dominating the Premiership," he said. "I am very happy that finally we got there when nobody expected us to get there with a side that had no chance at the start. In the end we knocked out Real Madrid, Juventus and Villarreal and now I have every right to believe we can win the final.

He joked that his decision to drop Lehmann last season had helped the German. "I felt with the pressure on Riquelme he would just try to hit the target and not aim for the corner because he was scared to miss. Jens guessed the right side - it was more down to a poker game than training."

Villarreal's Uruguayan striker Diego Forlan absolved Riquelme of any blame. "I didn't think it was a penalty," the former Manchester United striker said. "With respect to Riquelme, I don't think anybody should blame him. He had the guts to take it and he missed - it can happen to anybody.

"I haven't spoken to him because there is nothing to say - I want to give him some space to be with his family at this time. He is obviously very gutted," Forlan added.