Arsenal fans wait to find Dr Jekyll or Mr Hyde

Arsenal fans wait to find Dr Jekyll or Mr Hyde

Crucial Save... Jens Lehmann stops last-minute penalty at Villarreal.

Crucial Save... Jens Lehmann stops last-minute penalty at Villarreal.

Arsenal's 'Jekyll and Hyde' season will reach its climax in the Champions League final against Barcelona tomorrow, with the Highbury faithful hoping to see the good guy in action. Too tough for Real Madrid and Juventus in Europe, but a pushover for Bolton Wanderers in domestic football, Arsenal's young side have shown a split personality in a challenging year

Arsenal's run to tomorrow's final in Paris has broken an all-time record in European cup football, with 10 consecutive clean sheets restoring Arsenal's traditional strength of tight defending.

Tomorrow will also be a unique achievement for a club that had never previously survived past the quarter-final stages, adding real lustre to their final season at Highbury.

The composure at the back that was so cruelly lacking in previous forays into Europe has finally materialised, while talismanic captain Thierry Henry and teenage midfielder Francesc Fabregas have provided the threat going forward.

The final will be a particularly special game for Henry, who symbolises the French flair that compatriot Arsene Wenger has brought to the club in a decade as manager.

The 28-year-old striker grew up in the Paris suburb of Les Ulis and watched France win the 1998 World Cup from the subs bench in the Stade de France that is hosting their showdown with Barca.

More importantly, he holds the key to Arsenal's present and its future.

With a single devastating burst of pace, a mazy run from outside the area or an audacious shot from distance, Henry has the ability to turn the Premier League's fourth-best side into European champions.

However, win or lose, the club's record goalscorer could also decide to leave in the aftermath of the final.

Instead of leading Arsenal out next season at their new 60,000-seater Emirates Stadium, Henry could be at the Nou Camp with the very team he faces tomorrow, Barcelona.

Linked by newspaper reports with a move to Catalonia all season and yet to sign a new contract with Arsenal, Henry's future has become a cross for Wenger to bear.

Victory might persuade him to stay on and be a part of Wenger's third generation of Arsenal teams after the 1998 Double winners and the 'Invincible' league side of 2004.

Defeat could spell the end of Henry's seven-year stay in north London and leave Arsenal with a far bigger hole in the side than the one made last year by skipper Patrick Vieira's move to Juventus.

It is not a prospect that Arsenal like to dwell on after a season which has proved so disappointing outside the Champions League.

Henry's goals, which have made him the Premier League's top scorer for the fourth time in five years, were still not enough to prevent their worst finish to a season since 1997 - having been first or second in the eight previous years.

A far cry from that unbeaten campaign, Arsenal lost in the league 11 times - going down to the likes of West Brom, now relegated, and two promoted clubs, Wigan and West Ham United.

Dumped out of both cup competitions, and too often out-muscled in the league, Arsenal's youngsters only found their feet in Europe, where they seemed better able to develop their passing game.

Fabregas was an inspiration, while midfielder Mathieu Flamini proved unexpectedly good cover for injured left-back Ashley Cole in a defence where Ivorian pair Kolo Toure and Emmanuel Eboue stood out.

Against Barca, Arsenal will almost certainly use the 4-5-1 line-up that has taken them to the final, with Jose Antonio Reyes pushing forward from the left flank and Alexander Hleb from the right.

Fabregas, who was snapped up from Barcelona's youth ranks, Gilberto and Robert Pires, another unused sub at the 1998 World Cup final, should fill the central area and support lone striker Henry.

Eboue, Toure, Cole and Sol Campbell will be in front of Jens Lehmann, whose last-minute penalty save against Villarreal booked them a place in the final.

Arsenal will start out as underdogs against a Barcelona side who have played some mesmerising football this season. But if Wenger's youngsters can bring their European rather than domestic form to the final, they will at least stand a chance.

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