Sol survives Spanish inquisition

JENS LEHMANN’S penalty save will rightly earn him the glory and the headlines but Arsenal’s progress to the Champions League Final could not have been any sweeter for their under-pressure defender Sol Campbell.

Lehmann’s dramatic plunge to his left to keep out Riquelme’s last-minute spot-kick sent Arsenal on their way to Paris, and it also marked a remarkable return for Campbell.

He put aside two years of injury hell, mental anguish and a disappearing act to lead his team to their 10th Champions League clean sheet in a row - and answer his critics in the process.

Campbell’s problems have been by no means isolated or short-term, a fact which must have led Arsene Wenger to think long and hard about including him in a match of such significance.

He made only 21 appearances because of injuries last season and did not return to full fitness until April, by which time the emergence of Philippe Senderos meant he was no longer guaranteed a place.

Further disappointment came when he was left on the bench for the FA Cup Final against Manchester United, a blow of such psychological significance that there were genuine concerns at Highbury about Campbell’s reaction.

There is little doubt that he took the decision badly and the sense of unfairness was exasperated when he suffered an ankle injury in the first match of England’s summer tour of the USA.

Suddenly Campbell could see himself sliding from England’s number one defender, who had played in every major tournament finals for his country since Euro 96, to a man whose form and mental toughness was a matter of national debate.

In truth, his age and body shape made the journey a more torturous one because - as England manager Sven-Goran Eriksson has recently remarked - his bulky physique means he takes longer to reach peak fitness - especially at the age of 33.

But perhaps those who doubted his mental powers more than his physical abilities will begin to re-consider their judgement after last night’s match in eastern Spain.

He was not perhaps the same larger-than-life, unbeatable presence that made him one of the best defenders in the world at the 2002 World Cup, where he played alongside Rio Ferdinand. But in truth he didn’t need to be because Kolo Toure provides the athleticism for the Gunners defence these days.

So instead Campbell looked calm and solid in an otherwise nervy Arsenal performance, barking out orders at his team’s young defence right from the very first minute, and drawing on his vast experience to keep Villarreal at bay.

It was impressive, because Campbell could hardly have received a more serious test of his self-belief than the events of this season.

He began his comeback well enough, scoring with two headed goals in a 2-0 victory over Everton at Highbury and then winning back his England place in November, at the expense of Rio Ferdinand. But the fates began to twist against him when he had to come off the field with yet another injury half-way through the match against Austria at Old Trafford.

If that was not a big enough blow, the match against West Ham on February 1 proved one test too many, as he walked out of Highbury at half-time disgusted with his mistakes in a 3-2 defeat - leaving Wenger to cite “mental” problems as the reason.

The English press relished the story, launching a “search for Sol” campaign and comparing his temporary disappearance to that of comedian Stephen Fry and even novelist Agatha Christie. But Campbell soon returned, unharmed rather than unhinged, only to suffer an ankle injury in his next training session. Even his much-publicised comeback two months later ended in disaster when he broke his nose at Fratton Park against Portsmouth. But all through the ordeal, Wenger has kept faith with the man he signed from Tottenham on a free transfer.

“Sol is a lion,” he insisted. “He’s come through a difficult period, I don’t know why and I didn’t try to know why. I just know this was the right moment to bring him back.”

Wenger was proved correct, although Campbell did enjoy some of the luck he has been missing all season.

He allowed Villarreal’s Franco to get ahead of him at the near post after 54 minutes but saw the Spaniard head wide from only six yards. Then he saw the same player have a goal disallowed for offside after he was allowed to slip through the Arsenal defence 14 minutes later.

But the big defender put in a crucial challenge as Franco twisted and turned in the area in the 77th minute and saw his night topped off by Lehmann’s remarkable penalty stop in the dying seconds.

“Jens is in fantastic form and I had every confidence in him,” insisted Campbell.

“Now I just want to go and win the trophy.”

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