Jens stung by questions about his eccentric style

Germany's No 1 urges refs to offer protection
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The Independent Football

That masterly, if at times antagonistic and unpredictable goalkeeper, Germany's recently promoted No 1, Jens Lehmann, sits in tattered jeans and sweat shirt and discusses his split personality. Removed from a penalty area of opposition players hurtling towards him, the man who has usurped Oliver Kahn's role with the World Cup hosts is quiet and deliberate, his tone almost soporific. The Arsenal goalkeeper possesses a wry humour. When he meets journalists at Arsenal's training ground, there is a brief minor disagreement among some of his interrogators. He looks on bemused, then asks: "You are wearing shin-pads?" he asks.

It is tempting to ask whether Lehmann dons body armour. In his line of work, particularly in the heat of combat, he comes prepared for anything, legal and illegal. Woe betide the opponent who invades the personal space of one who appears as eccentric as the stereotypical custodian, but in fact has his own rationale for his sometimes belligerent behaviour.

"There is a difference between a good goalkeeper and someone who ticks every box in goalkeeping," explains Lehmann, who has been a crucial component of a rearguard which has a record of 10 Champions' League clean sheets this season. "There are a lot of good shot-stoppers; but they never come out of goal, they never get involved. Those keepers never reach the highest levels. But if you decide to play the other style, you have arguments with other players or referees, because it's always very physical."

But can he watch replays of his own performances and honestly believe that aggression towards some opposition performers is acceptable? "Nobody can really judge me on that because they haven't experienced how it is, when there are players always going out, trying to catch you, trying to punch you," says the 36-year-old who hails from Essen and, having played only in the Bundesliga (apart from a brief period at Milan), moved to Highbury in 2003 as successor to David Seaman.

"When I came here, that was one reason why Arsenal signed me, because I was quite good at dealing with that [the physical side]. But I had to adapt to the English way, too. When you come out of goal, you get punched and knocked everywhere. That's why sometimes there's some arguments. If I feel that I'm not being protected by the referees I have to make them aware of that." He pauses before adding: "Especially in the last season, I think they are aware of it."

But was he not concerned that he could concede penalties with his habit of pushing opponents away. "I could not," he is wounded by the question. "I've never hurt somebody. They try to block me, so how could it be a foul by me?" The man who confirmed the Gunners' progress to Wednesday's Champions' League final with that semi-final second-leg penalty save from Juan Roman Riquelme at Villarreal is adamant that officials should ensure that opposition players should stay well away from him, if for no other reason than their own safety.

Lehmann adds: "I tell you this: I never injured anybody in my life, and I don't want to do it. But nowadays, people come out with their elbows, with their fists, punching at my ribs, and everywhere. If I miss a ball and punch someone in the head people would say 'what have you done?' I don't want to have that. That's why I'm asking for protection. I don't want to injure someone. But I want to have protection from the referees as well."

Last season, he lost his place to Manuel Almunia, but won back the jersey. "I spoke to the boss [Arsène Wenger], and it seemed I wasn't fresh enough to fit in his team." It took him a while to adjust to an English game which, unlike Germany, has no winter break. In his first two years here he suffered slight mid-season fatigue, but has worked on the problem with Arsenal's coaching staff.

It has also helped his international claims. After many years of understudying Kahn, Lehmann finally displaced the Bayern Munich veteran last month, in the judgement of Germany's national coach Jürgen Klinsmann, who took over team selection in 2004. The two goalkeepers have not spoken for two years, and the whole issue has been the subject of a sustained debate in Lehmann's homeland. Initially, Klinsmann planned to decide between them when he named his squad, but pressure from Bayern caused him to bring that date forward. "I was quite surprised," Lehmann says of Klinsmann's verdict. He adds wryly: "I think Bayern Munich asked him - but it was the wrong moment, I think."

Klinsmann was asked to arbitrate precisely at a time when Lehmann was performing heroics behind the Gunners' young, improvised defence. Asked whether he could now be regarded as world No 1, let alone Germany's, he smiles and says: "That's a cheeky question. No, it's down to our teamwork. We're proud of that, especially because in recent seasons although we probably played our best football we lacked a little in our defensive work. Now with our young defenders and midfielders we kept a clean sheet for quite a while. That's why we're sitting here. So, you can't really say to me, 'You're the best'."

Another sterling display in Paris would enhance his reputation in the eyes of his countrymen ahead of the World Cup? He shrugs. "It wouldn't harm it, for sure."

Paris Match: How they got there

ARSENAL

Arsenal 2 FC Thun 1

Ajax 1 Arsenal 2

Sparta Prague 0 Arsenal 2

Arsenal 3 Sparta Prague 0

FC Thun 0 Arsenal 1

Arsenal 0 Ajax 0

Real Madrid 0 Arsenal 1

Arsenal 0 Real Madrid 0

Arsenal 2 Juventus 0

Juventus 0 Arsenal 0

Arsenal 1 Villarreal 0

Villarreal 0 Arsenal 0

BARCELONA

Werder Bremen 0 Barcelona 2

Barcelona 4 Udinese 1

Panathinaikos 0 Barcelona 0

Barcelona 5 Panathinaikos 0

Barcelona 3 Werder Bremen 1

Udinese 0 Barcelona 2

Chelsea 1 Barcelona 2

Barcelona 1 Chelsea 1

Benfica 0 Barcelona 0

Barcelona 2 Benfica 0

Milan 0 Barcelona 1

Barcelona 0 Milan 0

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