Jens Lehmann – the man on the spot for Germany

Jens Lehmann is many things. Temperamental. Outspoken. High strung. However, the most enduring quality about Lehmann is probably his inconsistency. The only thing predictable about him is that he is totally and completely unpredictable.

He’ll mix moments of sustained brilliance with moments of jaw-dropping incompetence. He’ll be as impenetrable as the Berlin Wall one minute, only to crumble to pieces the next minute. One day, he’s the greatest goalkeeper in the world, standing up to world class strikers from Manchester United, Chelsea, and Liverpool. The next day, he’s lucky if he can stop the Ladybugs, Air Bud, or anyone from D.C. United.

If you look up on Youtube, there are many Jens Lehmann compilations available. Some of them are a montage of his brilliant saves, like the World Cup shootout against Argentina or the penalty save against Villareal that put Arsenal into the Champions League Final.

Others are a compilation of his less-than-stellar moments, like his annoying habit of tripping before trying to kick the ball away thereby resulting in easy goals for the opposition or his equally annoying habit of flopping and faking injuries (including one particularly humorous clip of him and Didier Drogba competing for the Olympic gold in diving set to the tune of the “Benny Hill” theme song).

Indeed, if there were ever a more enigmatic man in professional soccer, it may well be Jens Lehmann. As the Germans embark on their Euro 2008 campaign, Lehmann is once again the man on the spot. His brilliant play during the 2006 World Cup earned him a well-deserved reputation as one of the top goalkeepers in the world and justified then-coach Jurgen Klinsmann’s decision to go with him over 2002 World Cup hero, Oliver Kahn. His sparkling displays for Arsenal during their “Invincibles” season and during their run to the Champions League Final showed that he was more than a one-time wonder.

However, Lehmann is coming off a season in which he rarely played with the first-team. Other than a few F.A. Cup appearances and the big Premiership match with Manchester United, which effectively ended Arsenal’s title hopes, Lehmann didn’t play in a big match all year. Arsene Wenger’s decision to stick to the solid-but-unspectacular Manuel Almunia was more of an indictment of Jens Lehmann’s error-prone ways than it was faith in Almunia, the career backup.

Despite that, Germany has turned to its old hero in the hopes that he is still every bit as sharp and as fit as he was during the World Cup. Maybe coach Joachim Low feels that Lehmann will be fine and that his training at Arsenal would be more than sufficient to make up for a lack of match fitness. Or maybe Low had no other options at goal. Either way, it’s not an exaggeration to say that Lehmann could be the most important factor in determining whether Germany goes all the way to the title or goes home early.

The Germans have winnable matches against Austria and Poland in their Group, which carries so much historical baggage that they should have the Czech Republic in there and called it the “Road to World War II Rematch Group.” The Germans have plenty of firepower up front with Bayern teammates Miroslav Klose and Lukas Podolski (although the latter could lose his starting spot as a result of a lackluster club season). Michael Ballack and Torsten Frings are an excellent pair in midfield while Mario Gomez and the ageless Oliver Neuville are options off the bench.

The key will be whether the team’s aggressive style of play can score a lot while limiting the damage on the defensive end. As such it will be up to Phillip Lahm, Christoph Metzelder, Per Mertesacker, and Clemens Fritz to get back on defense, otherwise Lehmann will see many situations where he’s the last line of the defense.

Indeed, with Germany’s All-or-Nothing approach, Jens Lehmann may be the only thing standing between the “all” and the “nothing.” He’ll have to hope that his reflexes are still sharp and that his timing is still accurate. He’ll have to hope that his training ground practice sessions with Cesc Fabregas, Robin Van Persie, and Emmanuel Adebayor will compensate for a lack of match experience. He’ll have to hope that his errors in the two pre-tournament friendlies were nothing more than a veteran goalkeeper working out the kinks rather than a harbinger of things to come.

We’ve seen what he can do when his head is on straight. The only question will be which Jens Lehmann will show up. Jens Lehmann the World Beater? Or Jens Lehmann the Self Beater? Germany eagerly, and nervously, waits for the answer.

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