Freddie Ljungberg interview: FA Cup can spur Arsenal revival

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Giving something back: Ljungberg at the Arsenal soccer school in Dubai.

A flash of a red mohican was all defenders saw of him in his prime. Skilfully evading offside traps like a cat burglar, for nearly a decade at Arsenal Freddie Ljungberg made an art form of ghosting through iron-clad rearguards as Dutch master Dennis Bergkamp picked the locks.

The Sweden winger was part of a side that redefined British football. Under manager Arsene Wenger’s guise – and alongside thoroughbreds such as Thierry Henry, Patrick Vieira and Sol Campbell – the ‘Invincibles’ went unbeaten for 49 Premier League games between 2003 and 2004.

Before injuries took their toll and he departed for West Ham in 2007, Ljungberg was the goalscoring wideman who helped his side claim two league titles and three FA Cups during 328 appearances.

Unlike the current crop, there were no uncomfortable questions about “winning mentality” at the club then.

The 2014 Gunners have the chance to end nine painful years without silverware when they play Hull in the FA Cup final on May 17. Speaking to Sport360° at an Arsenal Soccer Schools Dubai event in partnership with Emirates Airline, Ljungberg backed them to achieve this long-awaited success.

“It is special to win your first trophy, and important. People talk about a winning mentality, and that does not come from just one trophy," declared the former Sweden international. 

“The boys are all hungry, and I definitely think they can win the FA Cup. The buy of Mesut Ozil made all the other players raise themselves. They felt more belief than the previous season.

“They had sold players to Barcelona and Manchester City before, now they had signed someone for £42.4 million (Dh249m) from Real Madrid. If we can keep on doing like we did last summer, then we can keep getting better and better.”

Another outstanding issue currently hangs over the club. Boss Wenger is yet to sign the contract extension that will see his 18-year stay extend beyond the summer.

A painful end to the season, in which a dismal spring saw a once-promising league title bid predictably evaporate, has raised questions about the Frenchman’s future in some quarters.

However, you will not find any doubt in Ljungberg’s mind. He is adament when he declared that Wenger must continue patrolling the Emirates Stadium touchline.

“It is very, very important. He built the club, the way they play today," said Ljungberg. "There is no question about it when I saw them building the stadium [which was completed in 2006 at a cost of 390m}, he had a restriction financially compared to when I played.

“That affected him. He could not just buy who he wanted. Now, with Ozil they have shown we have that financial power again. I really want him to be at the helm, leading the club forward and having the opportunity to build the team he wants.”

But will the relief of ending the trophy drought make the 64 year old decide to end his remarkable reign on a high? “You would have to ask him, but I personally do not think so,” Ljungberg stated.

“I know his winning mentality and how angry he was when we did not win one game – so I can imagine how angry he is at the moment. It will be great for him, and will spur him on to try and win more trophies.” 

The pitfalls of replacing an icon have been shown in grim detail at Manchester United this season. The decision to dismiss David Moyes on Monday followed a disastrous debut campaign, in which he proved himself pitifully unprepared to follow on from Sir Alex Ferguson’s trophy-laden 26-year spell in charge.

Ljungberg had sympathy for the ex-Everton boss, and did not want to consider what damage a Wenger exit would cause.

“To fill someone’s shoes at a club who has been such a legend at a club, like Sir Alex or Arsene, it is extremely difficult for whomever comes in,” said the 37 year old. 

“It is always difficult at such a great club which has had a manager who has pushed the players so hard, and knew all the buttons to push to make them better.

“It takes time to know what makes an individual player tick. It was less tahan a year and he is gone – I feel sorry for him.

“It is not an easy job to follow a legend like Sir Alex. I try not to think about him [Wenger] leaving, I think he will stay.”

Since retiring in 2012 following a globetrotting spell that included sojourns in America and Japan, Ljungberg is happily settled in London with a young family.

But the travelling has not stopped now his boots are hung up. He promotes Arsenal as an ambassador, the club he notably still refers to when talking as “we”. 

For Ljungberg, his choice to play in the Major Soccer League and J-league came after falling out of love with the intense glare of the British game.

“I made a conscious decision when I was about 30 that I wanted to do something different with my life. I felt a little bit lost and didn’t trust people, so I decided to move to America.

“It was a personal choice, thinking it would be better to promote football around the world and help give back some of what football gave to me. Maybe the hype of football there was not as big as it was in Europe.

“I never missed it. I remember speaking to [France’s legendary World-Cup winning defender] Marcel Desailly when he was playing, and he said do not stop until you feel you are ready no matter what people say.

“I still go to the semi-finals and finals of the Champions League, so I can think ‘it would be nice to play today’ in those big games. But otherwise, I am enjoying life with a young family.”

Thrust into fast-paced London life at a club that oozed glamour and sophistication when moving from Halmstads BK in 1998, Ljungberg enjoyed a pin-up status.

Famously, the Swede was pictured topless in a high-profile Calvin Klein marketing campaign as he competed with David Beckham for the attention of the fashion world. The hair is all gone now, but the sharp cheekbones envied by male models around the world remain.

Ljungberg did not acquire the taste for adorning billboards, however. A life spent away from glossy magazines, promoting the club he loves while raising a family is clearly enough for this once truly outstanding footballer to find contentment.

“For me, the fame was always the bad part of it,” he said. “It was nothing I ever wanted. We do sponsorship deals as that is simply what you do as a footballer, whether that is with Pepsi, Calvin Klein, Puma or whomever.

“The best part now is that calms down.”

FREDDIE'S FAVOURITES

Favourite team-mate:
The best thing at Arsenal was that we were all close, and a lot of us socialised off the field. It is hard to pick one, but Jens Lehmann was my neighbour.

Toughest opponent:
I played against Ashley Cole all the time in training. For me, he is the best left-back in the world. He was the hardest opponent and I had him every day in training.

Favourite away ground:
Real Madrid’s Bernabeu was an amazing stadium to play in. It was just on top of you, and such a big stadium.

Favourite goal:
A lot of people mention the goal I scored in the 2002 FA Cup final against Chelsea. But a more important one was against Manchester United at home when I chipped the goalkeeper from outside the penalty area in 2001.

Favourite memory:
When former assistant manager Pat Rice took me aside when I joined and told me about the ‘Arsenal Way’, how the club looks after everyone and that we have to win one trophy a year or we are not happy. I remember that to this day – I was a bit shocked but that is how it is at Arsenal.

Favourite player of all time:
I loved how Zinedine Zidane played, and Ronaldo – the old one.

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Benzema strike hands Madrid slender advantage over Bayern

Andy West 24/04/2014
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Home advantage: Benzema grabbed the only goal of the game at the Bernebeu.

Karim Benzema’s first half goal gave Real Madrid a deserved advantage in their semi-final clash of the titans against Bayern Munich.

Bayern dominated possession but Madrid created the better chances, with their more incisive attacking play proving that the number of passes made by a team is less important than how and where they are made.

The build-up to the game could barely have been more enticing as the current Champions League title holders travelled to take on the club who boast the most number of European crowns.

Further intrigue came with Bayern boss Pep Guardiola making his first return to Spain since quitting Madrid’s arch rivals Barcelona two years ago, in a rematch of a semifinal which was ultimately won on penalties by the German team.

Madrid were boosted before kick-off with confirmation that Cristiano Ronaldo – the competition’s leading scorer – was back in the starting line-up after a thigh injury, but last week’s Copa del Rey match-winner Gareth Bale was restricted to the substitute’s bench after failing to fully recover from the flu.

Bayern quickly established almost complete control of the ball, threatening early on when Arjen Robben turned dangerously on the edge of the box, only to see his shot deflected wide by Sergio Ramos. 

The resulting corner saw Bayern earn anther glorious opportunity but Bastian Schweinsteiger could only direct his header straight at Iker Casillas. 

The home team had barely mustered a meaningful attack until they took the lead after 19 minutes. Ronaldo picked out the forward run of Fabio Coentrao and slid a well-weighted pass into the stride of his Portuguese compatriot, who cut out the defence with a low ball across the face of the box to give Benzema a simple tap-in at the far post.

Los Blancos continued to surrender the majority of possession but they were the more dangerous team when they did come forward, with Manuel Neuer making routine saves to keep out a header from Ronaldo and a 20-yard drive from Di Maria.

Ronaldo then squandered a glorious chance for number two when Luka Modric released Benzema on the left, and the Frenchman’s precise cross picked out an unmarked Ronaldo, who amazingly sidefooted high over the bar from a great position.

Bayern were enjoying plenty of possession and occasionally threatened penetration to go with it, coming close when Franck Ribery cut back a low cross to Robben whose shot was blocked by Xabi Alonso.

And then when Philipp Lahm – playing in the centre of midfield – raced forward and squeezed a shot into the side-netting from a narrow angle.

But it was still the hosts who were creating clearer chances, again wasting the opportunity to double their lead after Isco’s deep cross picked out the unmarked Di Maria, who controlled well but then blazed his shot high over the bar.

The second period started in the same way as Ronaldo’s low strike forced a full stretch save from Neuer to his left, and Carlo Ancelotti was wearing the look of a man wondering how many more chances his team wanted.

Bayern continued to control the flow of the game but rarely looked like scoring as the home team’s defence coped comfortably with their careful passing around the edge of the box, and soon Neuer again saved his team with a scrambling low stop from Ronaldo’s well-struck left-footed effort from the edge of the box.

If anything, Bayern’s attacks were growing less threatening as the game went on, and the hosts entered the final 10 minutes looking relatively comfortable.

That changed, though, when substitute Thomas Muller turned to fire in a dangerous strike which was deflected narrowly wide before a right wing cross found another sub, Mario Gotze, but his fierce drive from 15 yards was too close to Casillas who was able to desperately parry.

There was late drama as Muller had an ambitious penalty appeal waved away after a challenge by Xabi Alonso, before the final whistle sparked big celebrations in the Bernabeu.

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David Moyes releases LMA statement after Man Utd sacking

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David Moyes has spoken of his gratitude to Sir Alex Ferguson for giving him the chance to manage Manchester United.

Moyes, who was sacked by United on Tuesday, said he felt proud to have taken the team to the Champions League quarter-finals, and that he understood fans' frustrations at the overall results.

He said in a statement: "During this period of transition, performances and results have not been what Manchester United and its fans are used to or expect, and I both understand and share their frustration.

"I have always believed that a manager never stops learning during his career, and I know I will take invaluable experience from my time as United's manager.

"I remain proud to have led the team to the quarter-finals of this year's Champions League and I remain grateful to Sir Alex Ferguson for believing in my ability and giving me the chance to manage Manchester United."

The League Managers' Association has blasted the "unprofessional manner" in which Moyes was sacked.

LMA chief executive Richard Bevan said: "The LMA is very disappointed with the nature of David's departure from Manchester United and to read extensive reports in the press, confirming David's sacking, before David himself had been spoken to officially by the club.

"Throughout his time at United, David, as he always does, has conducted himself with integrity and professionalism, values that he believes in and that have been strongly associated with the club and its rich tradition.

"It is therefore sad to see the end of David's tenure at United being handled in an unprofessional manner."

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