Lehmann: 'I'll be saddest man in football if we don't qualify'

Arsenal v Fulham: Unfashionable goalkeeper saves his salutes for inimitable Henry and team's indomitable spirit
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In the intoxicating post-match euphoria of Arsenal's most arresting ever win in European competition, Jens Lehmann is polite to a fault. He is sobriety itself. The German goalkeeper is trying hard to perfect his rapidly growing command of English and visibly concentrates as he carefully answers questions.

So he's lobbed an easy one. What's it like to play alongside Thierry Henry, the tormentor-in-chief of Internazionale, the man who fashioned and furnished the magnificent 5-1 midweek victory in Milan and who has just been named one of the three best players in the world by Fifa? "It's not in my interest to tell you about him," comes the conversation-stopping reply.

OK, what's it like to face him in training? Again Lehmann looks pained. "I don't want to be impolite but it's not in my interest to tell you about this." Not even a single, easy platitude. It's not that Lehmann is rude. Far from it. He is just scrupulously, bewilderingly professional - and believes any insight, however bland, into his team-mate's technique would be somehow compromising, would somehow offer his opponents an advantage.

Take Lehmann's attitude to the game. What does he do to relax? This time he looks truly bemused. "Relax? I can't relax. As a goalkeeper you always try to be perfect - so you can relax on your holidays and not before. At night? I have to think about what I have to do tomorrow. It's a pressure game, a mental, psychological thing and, as I say, I can only relax on my holidays." He then hesitates before adding: "I can't explain to you the mentality of being a goalkeeper because it would take too long now."

It's a cliché to say they are different - but, as with any cliché, it is born of a truism. And even among his profession Lehmann who, until fatherhood, had continued his studies as an economics student, is regarded as a bit of a one-off. He's never been a fashionable goalkeeper and so when he signed for Arsenal on a three-year deal in the summer for an undisclosed fee (about £1.7m) to replace David Seaman, he was immediately regarded as a cut-price, temporary option for a cash-strapped club. One from the long-list rather than any short-list that Arsène Wenger had compiled.

On Tuesday at the San Siro it was an evening for redemption. Lehmann had, according to his manager, "beaten himself up" after the 3-0 trouncing by Inter at Highbury back in mid-September. He blamed himself for the goals and, bravely, told everyone about it. The German newspaper Bild quoted him as saying: "My mood is as grey as the skies over London right now."

Goodness knows how poetically sombre he felt after another subsequent howler in Kiev which had appeared to end Arsenal's interest in the Champions' League. It all led to a head of steam, periodically faced by most goalkeepers, questioning the wisdom of his signing.

Back in the dressing rooms inside the San Siro, after the final whistle, and Lehmann, a former, fitful player with Milan, who discarded him after five games, and who share the magnificent stadium, called for a moment's silence amid the din and delirium of Arsenal's victory. What did he say? "I said that this is a big team. Of all the teams I've played for this one has the biggest team spirit," Lehmann explains. "I've played for Schalke 04 and we won at the San Siro in the Uefa Cup as underdogs and we had a fantastic team spirit, as there was at Borussia Dortmund [where he won the Bundesliga]. But the level here is higher and because of that the team spirit is bigger because there are better players."

Was it a release after the pressure of knowing that nothing but victory would do? "There's been a lot [of pressure] for the whole week, every week. Remember the pressure against Kiev (at Highbury), scoring in the 88th minute to stay in the competition? But it has been good for us and we are quite used to it. Everyone was aware that we had to win and the boss made some good remarks [beforehand]." What did Wenger say? "I don't want to tell you. You'll have to ask him." Oh, that professionalism again. Still he admits that the result was personally very important. "Sure, but not only for me. When you're beaten 3-0 [the previous result against Inter] and you're at home it's a big, big defeat and we didn't only win [in Milan] we had a great win and this was very important - mainly for the team spirit. We're not through the group stage and, because of that, it [the Highbury defeat] will remain in my head if we lose against Moscow. If not it was just an unlucky evening and I hope that we will continue playing in the Champions' League." Failure to do so, he says, will make him "the saddest man in football".

Lehmann takes his duties seriously. "I'm the goalkeeper and I'm responsible all the time - whether it was obviously my fault or not. I'm 33 and there are a lot of young players playing with me and I think that I've the experience to stand the pressure more than those players. It is better for me to take the blame. I'm used to it because I'm the goalkeeper. It could happen on Sunday that I make a mistake and I'm blamed."

Today Arsenal face Fulham looking to extend a remarkable, record-breaking run of 13 unbeaten Premiership games since the start of the season. "We're a very good team and are aware that we have the power to play well and want to prove that," he says. Doesn't that application become intolerable? "That's the big challenge - to not make mistakes. It's like that," Lehmann says. He also enjoys the "challenge" of replacing Seaman who, of course, garnered an amazing decade of honours at Arsenal. "David Seaman has had great success and I haven't yet. I have to try to reach that as well - and maybe then I can say that people will remember me. He was such a big player here and it is not easy to follow in his footsteps."

Life at Highbury suits him after what he feels were the constraints of German football. He clearly has a high regard for Wenger's mature approach. "I was a player who was not welcome at my former station because there were a lot of problems with my club, Borussia Dortmund," Lehmann candidly explains. Indeed he has been particularly impressed by the camaraderie among the goalkeepers at Arsenal - Stuart Taylor, Graham Stack and Rami Shaaban. In Germany, he didn't talk to the other keeper at Dortmund for a year and a half because he criticised Lehmann in the newspapers as the team went 18 games without a win.

His relationship with Bayern Munich's Oliver Kahn, the man preventing him adding to his 16 caps for his country but who is regarded as a technically inferior goalkeeper, is also said to be frosty. "I've been made welcome here and for me it is very comfortable to be accepted like the supporters have been doing," Lehmann says. "And my name is quite similar and so it is quite easy for them to switch from Seaman to Lehmann when they sing their songs!"

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