By Simon Baskett
VILLARREAL – Arsenal coach Arsene Wenger said clinching a place in a first Champions League final on Tuesday was the perfect way to cap almost a decade of hard work at the London club.
“I’m happy because there was always a big doubt abo
ut Arsenal and Europe even when we dominated at home. I’m very happy because we weren’t expected to get there.
“We knocked Real Madrid out, Juventus out and now Villarreal and we have every right to be in the final.
“This completes the work of nine or nine and a half years from me and my staff and the best reward for the confidence I have been given at Arsenal.
The Premier League side were on the ropes for much of the match at the Madrigal with Villarreal strikers Guillermo Franco and Diego Forlan missing several great chances either side of the break.
But the Spaniards looked to have been saved when they were awarded a last-minute penalty after Jose Mari went down in the area under a challenge from Gael Clichy.
However, keeper Jens Lehmann saved Juan Roman Riquelme’s spot kick to ensure the Londoners a place in the final in Paris on May 17.
Wenger paid tribute to Lehmann’s character and psychological strength.
“I felt frankly that it (the penalty) looked a generous decision but I thought to myself if it was our year Jens would save it. I knew he wouldn’t be beaten easily. He has a strong character and the pressure and fatigue clearly told on Riquelme.
“I’m pleased because when a guy shows professionalism and a winning attitude. When a guy like Riquelme is under pressure he just wants to hit the target and not put it in the corner and Jens guessed right.”
The Arsenal manager said a tough league match against north London rivals Tottenham last Saturday had taken its toll on his team.
“I feel Villarreal played very well. Overall they looked tactically and technically very strong and we couldn’t get out of our own half.
“They rested their players at the weekend and physically they were on top of us throughout.”
The Frenchman said he was delighted to be playing the final in his home country.
“I’m happy to play in Paris,” he said. “I thought it was maybe a bad sign because last time the final was there it was between two Spanish teams but I’d go anywhere in the world to play a Champions League final.
Villarreal coach Manuel Pellegrini said his side were undeserving of defeat in a game they dominated from start to finish.
“It’s difficult to explain how we feel. We had at least four or five chances and we were better than Arsenal were at Highbury. We deserved to be in the final in Paris.
“I thought we could make it through from the first minute to the last.”
The Chilean said defeat had been particularly difficult to stomach because of Riquelme’s miss.
“The players are gutted and with good reason,” he said. “But I’m very proud of them. We are all very frustrated as we played very well and came so close to winning the game. — Reuter