Jens earns his keep at last

Jens Lehmann has never been short of self-belief but his penalty save at Villarreal has finally earned him the acclaim he craves, writes Sam Wallace
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The Independent Football

Not many international goalkeepers have been booed by their own nation's fans less than a year before the World Cup finals, but then not many international goalkeepers are like Jens Lehmann. The story of Arsenal's Champions' League penalty-saving hero is a remarkable odyssey through despair and triumph for a man whom even his fellow Germans have accused of being arrogant.

El Madrigal stadium on Tuesday night, 88 minutes gone and Thierry Henry walks over to Lehmann to offer him some advice on saving the most important penalty in the history of Arsenal Football Club. Lehmann listens to his captain, nods his head and then completely disregards Henry's words. Going his own way has been a consistent theme in Lehmann's career, but only recently has it started to reap such handsome rewards.

Born in Essen in the industrial Ruhr heartland in 1969, Lehmann is one of that breed of German sportsmen for whom self-confidence is in plentiful supply, and compromise and conciliation something of an anathema. Since he started his career at Schalke 04 in 1988, Lehmann has always believed himself to be destined for greatness. Only now, at 36, are his fellow Germans starting to agree with him.

Lehmann woke up yesterday morning to tabloid newspaper back pages proclaiming him "Supermann", for his penalty save from Juan Roman Riquelme that ensured Arsenal a place in their first European Cup final. Lehmann himself is more likely to be found with his nose in the Financial Times, a legacy of the economics degree for which he has studied during his football career and part of a determination to make himself different from his fellow professionals.

It had already been a great year for Lehmann, before Tuesday night. His bet season for Arsenal had culminated in Jürgen Klinsmann's shock announcement this month that Lehmann would finally supplant his bitter rival Oliver Kahn as the No 1 goalkeeper for Germany at the World Cup finals. The feud between the goalkeepers had come to define Lehmann - it has simmered since Euro 2000 - but with his promotion and the Riquelme penalty save he is at last stepping out of Kahn's shadow.

It has been a long time coming. Those in Germany who watched Lehmann's interviews after the Villarreal game said that they detected a softening in the aspect of a man who has always refused to adapt his image to make himself more media-friendly. In Germany, Lehmann has often hinted at a pro-Bayern Munich/Kahn conspiracy against him. Now he finally has the top job he has allowed himself to mellow.

This is the man who, after transferring to Borussia Dortmund in 1999 following an unhappy spell with Milan, arrived at his new club only to proclaim that he would always be a Schalke 04 fan at heart. Honest but, given that the two clubs' supporters despise each other, perhaps not the most politic introduction.

In 1997 he won the Uefa Cup at Schalke 04 and there was a Bundesliga title at Borussia Dortmund in 2002. At Arsenal, however, he struggled to convince that he was a worthy successor to David Seaman, especially last season when Arsène Wenger decided to drop him after the 2-1 defeat to Liverpool at Anfield in November 2004. It was a dreadful blow to Lehmann, and then in the Champions' League he conceded three goals away at Bayern Munich, who eliminated Arsenal from the competition.

Even then Lehmann still maintained that he was a better option than Kahn. The German press declined to agree. In a match to mark the opening of Bayern's new Allianz Arena in May, Lehmann played for a Germany team against Bayern. His old traits of aggression surfaced and he pushed Bastian Schweinsteiger over an advertising board. The Bayern crowd booed him for the rest of the match and a debate opened in the media as to whether he was fit to be the national team's goalkeeper.

Klinsmann defended him; Bayern officials said he got what he deserved. The German public doubted that Lehmann had changed at all. However, this season he has been transformed. He has always commanded his penalty area well but suddenly he has proved himself capable of the brilliant, instinctive saves that had been Kahn's hallmark - and Lehmann looked a great deal younger than his 36 years.

But those anticipating a complete personality change should know that he has not lost his old Teutonic self-belief completely. In the aftermath of his triumph on Tuesday night, Lehmann allowed himself to look forward to this summer's World Cup finals. "I will try to achieve the same against England," he said with no little confidence. "You will be quite sad about that. Maybe you won't like me so much then."

The adventures of 'Supermann'

* Lehmann scored the first outfield goal by a goalkeeper in the Bundesliga - a last-minute equaliser for Schalke against Borussia Dortmund in 1997.

* He holds the record for most sendings-off for a goalkeeper in the Bundesliga - five.

* In a Bundesliga match for Borussia Dortmund, Lehmann was dismissed for attempting to throttle Marcio Amoroso, his own team-mate.

* Against Bayern Munich last season, Lehmann remonstrated with the fourth official by pouring water over his head.