Soccer: Belief is Arsenal's weapon

By Steve Tongue

Unlike David Beckham, a long-suffering victim of the paparazzi, Arsenal's Freddie Ljungberg has never minded being pictured in his underwear. For four years he has made a lucrative part-time career of doing so, but now he is hanging up his pants and will no longer be the face - or the crotch - of Calvin Klein.

Time, perhaps, for a more statesmanlike image as the new captain of Sweden; and also the longest-serving player at Arsenal, a role thrust upon him since Dennis Bergkamp's departure in the summer.

Only Ljungberg, 29, can remember his club's first hesitant steps eight years ago in the Champions' League, a competition in which they should finally have received the reward of a footballing lifetime last May.

Instead, of course, Jens Lehmann was sent off early on in the final and even though Arsenal scored first, Barcelona came through 2-1.

The sad thing for Ljungberg, if not his younger colleagues taking on Porto at their new stadium tomorrow, is that they may never have a better chance of becoming champions of Europe this season.

Not that he can afford to admit it.

"It was almost like a mental block that we couldn't get past the quarter-final stage, and when we did I felt there was such a belief in the team that I thought we were going to do it," he admitted.

"I'm still a bit upset about the offside goal they equalised with, but hopefully it will make us stronger than we were, and come back and win it."

The immediate prospects, after winning the opening group game in Hamburg 2-1, with Porto and CSKA Moscow coming up, are solid enough.

"They're all good sides and we respect them, but I think we're good enough to go through. In Hamburg they had the sending-off and we got the penalty so it was a good start, and now we have to build on it against Porto and try to get the two wins, which would be a great start."

Although signed in time for the first of Arsene Wenger's eight previous European Cup campaigns, Ljungberg was ineligible because he had played for his Swedish club Halmstads in a qualifying round.

So he sat and shared the frustration of 73,000 crowds at Wembley, where the occasion seemed to inspire visiting teams more than the home side, who in two years there won only two games out of six.

Returning to Highbury, they proved unbeaten in 12 European ties, tending to fail ultimately by the narrowest of margins away from London.

Now the worry may be that the fine, new ground will also suit opponents as much as Arsenal, who have been struggling to impose themselves in Premiership matches while adjusting to their new surroundings and a much bigger pitch. Twelve metres longer and nine wider than Highbury, the playing surface is almost 30 per cent larger overall.

Ljungberg says of the early home games: "We came in for some criticism but we're playing quite well. Teams wanted to drop back and defend but then they scored, and we were struggling to score because they were all in their own box.

"But we'll learn. It's a new stadium with a big pitch; maybe we can't go at teams the same way as at Highbury. Perhaps we need to be more patient and make the other team tired, then score at the end.

"Personally I love the new pitch, because you can go at players a bit more. At Highbury, they could almost always double-mark you because the pitch was so narrow."

He should also for most of the time be granted his wish to exploit that space by playing in a wide position rather than centrally, as was often the case last season.

Arsenal have lost two wide boys in Robert Pires and Jose Antonio Reyes and gained a central one in Tomas Rosicky, of whom Ljungberg said: "I'm very happy he joined and he's a very good player.

"When you sign a player from another country you need to give them time to adapt, but he's looking good. I remember when I came it was very physical, and I'd think, 'Why didn't I get a free-kick there?'

"But you have to be strong and accept how it is over here. Now Jose Antonio has gone, I'll probably play a bit more wide. It depends what the boss wants to do. I like to play on the left, I must say, so I can move inside more, a bit more like a playmaker than just running round on the wing, but it's okay."

When Wenger reverts to a 4-5-1 formation for occasional away games, there is room for Rosicky in the middle alongside Gilberto Silva, the oldest outfield player, and Cesc Fabregas, the youngest, leaving the improved Alexander Hleb and Ljungberg on the flanks.

That was the line-up for the inspiring win at Old Trafford last week which suggested that Arsenal on their day can still provide the best challenge there is to Chelsea's domestic supremacy.

For a home game like tomorrow's, however, they may be better offering full-time support to Thierry Henry in the shape of either the new Kanu, Emmanuel Adebayor, or Robin van Persie.

Not since Sven Goran Eriksson's Benfica outplayed George Graham's champions 3-1 at Highbury in 1991 have Arsenal encountered Portuguese opposition.

- INDEPENDENT

© Copyright 2014, APN New Zealand Limited

Assembled by: (static) on production bpcf04 at 24 Nov 2014 01:47:07 Processing Time: 672ms