There will be a new round in the battle between Oliver Kahn and Jens Lehmann for the Germany No1 shirt when FC Bayern München and Arsenal FC come face to face in the UEFA Champions League over the next few weeks.
The draw for the Round of 16 brings the two goalkeepers - who have waged a longstanding off-the-field sniping match - into direct conflict as both try to impress national-team coach Jürgen Klinsmann into selecting one or the other as first choice for the 2006 FIFA World Cup finals.
The relationship between the two 35-year-olds could indeed be better. Kahn, named UEFA's best goalkeeper for four successive years from 1999-02, is still an outstanding custodian, if not quite at the lofty peak he once occupied. Lehmann, a superb shot-stopper who played all of Arsenal's 38 unbeaten league games last season, yet is prone to the occasional highly publicised error, believes he should now be No1 - but many remain unconvinced.
Before UEFA EURO 2004™, then Germany coach Rudi Völler opted for Kahn ahead of Lehmann but the Arsenal man insisted: "If our performances had been judged objectively, I would have been in the starting lineup."
When Völler resigned, his successor Klinsmann announced a decision that surprised German fans. He promised Lehmann "a fair fight" and as much playing time as Kahn, whose position had not previously been seriously questioned. And when Germany goalkeeping coach Sepp Maier stated that Kahn was a class above Lehmann, the 1974 World Cup winner was dropped from Klinsmann's coaching staff.
Problems at Arsenal
Lehmann's new status took a blow, however, when the former FC Schalke 04 and BV Borussia Dortmund player was sidelined by Arsenal manager Arsène Wenger after a number of inconsistent early-season displays.
Wenger dropped Lehmann for Spaniard Manuel Almunia at the beginning of December, and until Almunia's own form started to falter two months later, he kept Lehmann out for 12 of Arsenal's next 14 matches. Lehmann was recalled after his deputy performed poorly in Arsenal's 4-2 home defeat by Manchester United FC on 1 February and now looks set to start both ties against Bayern.
'Jens provoked me'
The history of this goalkeeping feud is spectacular with Kahn explaining: "Jens has often provoked me in public. I do not like that. I am willing to make a statement in order to end this discussion." His statement is expected on the pitch. "I am sure we both smiled when we heard the draw," he added.
Lehmann, meanwhile, is ready to accept the challenge. "I am convinced I will play for Germany in the next World Cup. I am better than I have ever been. As long as I remain fit, I will be the No1," he said.
Kahn 'still the best'
Bayern officials are less than pleased with the hype surrounding Kahn and Lehmann and their upcoming encounters. However, general manager Uli Hoeness came to his keeper's defence by saying: "If Oliver continues to perform at the level he has displayed again lately, there will be no discussion about him still being the best." Kahn, though, has called for calm, stressing: "The two matches are basically about Bayern against Arsenal, not about Kahn against Lehmann."
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