Bernd Leno spoke at length to German magazine kicker about the Europa League final, Petr Cech, his first season in England, and much more.
Thanks to Lewis Ambrose (@LGAmbrose) for the translation. If you are taking sippets from this interview, please ensure you credit kicker as the original source, and Arseblog News for the translation.
Mr Leno, what does this final mean to you?
It will be something special. Winning the Europa League would be my first major title, even if this competition doesn’t have the same status in England as it does in Germany. It would be awesome to hold the trophy in our hands. Nobody could take anything away from that.
Chelsea managed to get through against Frankfurt. Would you have preferred to play met a German club in the final?
When the penalty shootout was going on, a few amongst us said they’d rather Frankfurt win. Others wanted Chelsea. At least with Chelsea, we know what to expect. And in both of the league games we looked good. At home we dominated and won 2-0. Away we lost 3-2 but we played well in both matches.
With Frankfurt, you don’t know exactly what you’re going to get. I also don’t think playing Frankfurt would have been any easier. A final is a final.
So you were pleased with how things turned out?
Personally, I’d have liked to have played against Danny Da Costa [Frankfurt defender]. In our Leverkusen days we lived in the same house, that would have been a great story. We’ve done a lot together. Now we could have faced each other in a european final. Unfortunately it didn’t work out that way.
In the Premier League you’re Arsenal’s number one but you aren’t expected to play on Wednesday. How do you approach that?
In the Premier League it’s clear that I’m the number one. In the Europa League, Petr Cech has almost always played. That’s normal here in England and by some clubs it’s the same in the cup. I prepare the same way as normal, as if I’m going to play. But you also need to be prepared for the coach to say: “No, it’s the last game in (Cech’s) career.” You have to accept that. But it still isn’t clear who will play. Either way, I just hope we win, no matter who is in goal.
Petr Cech, your competition between the posts, will have the final game of his illustrious career. Would you have any ‘bad conscious’ if you take that away from him?
I have great respect for Petr Cech and we get along really well. He deserves any and all recognition. Still, I’m a professional sportsman, I always want to play, especially in a final. It would be the completely wrong time to have a guilty conscience. It’s a huge game for Arsenal, I absolutely wouldn’t say: ‘I’d rather not play.’ I’m pumped to play, that’s my mindset.
How do you evaluate your chances in the final?
It’s completely open. 50-50. There were just two points between us in the league and we have dealt with the bigger sides better than against smaller teams. We’ve sold ourselves well against the bigger teams, it suits us better to play teams who want to play. So playing Chelsea is probably more suited than if we played Frankfurt. They would have sat deeper and we would have been the favourites, just because they aren’t as well known.
How big of an advantage is it in this game that Chelsea have already for the Champions League, through the Premier League, while Arsenal will only reach the Champions League by winning the Europa League?
That’s tricky. You could say we’re more up for it, because we have to win to be in the Champions League. You could also say that means there’s more pressure on us. You can twist it like that. I really don’t know which situation is better. It’s a final and we have to give everything.
How important is it for you, personally, to play in the Champions League next season?
It’s very important. My last Champions League game is already over two years ago. The Thursday-Sunday rhythm also isn’t so good, because you’re always playing catch up in the league. We want to hear that music again. And this game, I don’t want to say it can save our season, but it can make it a successful one. If we lose, the season, which has actually been good, will have been disappointing.
The Champions League is always considered an important factor when it comes to playing for the national team. How do you see your prospects with Germany?
I concentrate on my performances for the club, first and foremost, and I’ve fought on and delivered. That was my target, and now we’re in the Europa League final. Obviously I’m happy to have been called up for the national team but the important thing is to stay focused on performances.
Back to Arsenal: Must you qualify for the Champions League on Wednesday, otherwise you’ll get a few jibes for leaving Leverkusen, who have made it?
It could be that one or two of the boys that I’m still in touch with are just waiting to text me about this (laughs). I’m just thinking about winning the trophy in Baku, then I can tease them…
The final between two English clubs is in Baku, Azerbaijan. What do you make of that?
The six, seven hours of flying is one thing. You can say: yeah, that’s alright. Baku is on the other side of Europe. The worst part is the situation surrounding Henrkih Mkhitaryan.
Arsenal asked for guarantees from UEFA on the safety of Henrik Mkhitaryan. He comes from Armenia, who are in conflict with Azerbaijan. Mkhitaryan ultimately decided not to go to Baku. What do you think of that?
It’s scandalous that he can’t play because of that. He worked for this all season long, now he can’t play in a final like this for political reasons. It’s also just odd that only 6000 fans per club get tickets. I was at the 2012 Champions League final in Munich: Bayern against Chelsea. One side of the stadium was red, the other blue. At a final like this one, one half has to be red and the other blue. That’s what football is about. I don’t want to speak ill of Baku, I’m sure the people there are excited about the final. But it’s clear to me that it isn’t right when requirements can’t be met and a player can’t play due to political reasons.
What do you think of Mkhitaryan’s decision not to travel?
His decision is completely understandable. I just feel bad for him, it saddens me.
Is it just a confirmation for the fans that those in charge of football are only interested in them from a commercial perspective?
With decisions like this are anything but favourable. Ultimately, the fans suffer, the atmosphere in the stadium suffers, Micki does too, so do we. That is not a good sign for football.
Should clubs not just boycott such a final?
You could do that, but the clubs would only end up harming themselves. The club wants to win the trophy, wants to be in the Champions League. If Arsenal and Chelsea refuse, they would probably be kicked out by UEFA. It just isn’t that straightforward.
Regardless of the final: how do you judge your first season in the Premier League?
Very positively. I’m really happy with my development. I didn’t have an easy start, but that’s normal when you move abroad, especially to the Premier League. Since getting into the team, I’ve played every Premier League game. Everything is a bit different in England. The tempo is quicker, at corners it’s rougher. It took time, but I adjusted well. It was a big step. I wanted an adventure, not to look back later and say, you didn’t take this chance to go to Arsenal, one of the biggest clubs in the world. And the Premier League is simply another level from the Bundesliga. I’m pleased with my development and that I have a built up a good reputation amongst the fans and my team-mates. But I also know I still have potential.
In December you were criticised for mistakes against Southampton and Liverpool. How would you evaluate your development since then?
Dealing with situations like that, staying calm and looking forward has always been one of my strengths. When you make mistakes like that at a club like this, the media are quick to talk badly about you. The blows are much harder than they were at Leverkusen. After this results, I was consistent for the rest of the season.
After 34 games, Arsenal were in a good position for the run in. Fourth place with a game in hand on Chelsea and the same points. Why didn’t you qualify for the Champions League?
We played at home against Crystal Palace and Brighton and we gifted them valuable points. Away, where we were never strong, we lost games. Deservedly. The other teams also weren’t picking up points. It was like a snail race. In the end, we screwed it up for ourselves. We lost three of the last five games to smaller teams. Now we have a second chance with the final, we can make up for it all.
Chelsea v Arsenal in the Europa League final. Liverpool v Tottenham in the Champions League final. Is the Premier League really that far ahead of the others in Europe?
I would say so. The other leagues are definitely not trailing that far behind. In Spain you have Real Madrid and Barcelona, in Germany there’s Bayern Munich and, in this past season, Borussia Dortmund. But the depth in the Premier League is so strong. We have gone through to the final confidently, Chelsea also had it pretty smooth up until the semi-final. And even after the top six, the other clubs also have huge financial potential that clubs in other leagues don’t have.
When the team 10th in the Premier League wants a player, the other clubs (abroad) have no chance financially. But it’s not only money. There are so many young talents coming through here. You can feel that something is happening in England. They’ve done good work.
Can the Bundesliga ever compete with the Premier League?
Bayern are one of the biggest clubs in the world and remain competitive. Even if they were knocked out by Liverpool. Other than Bayern, though, it’s probably difficult. The German clubs have all been knocked out by English clubs. There’s a big game here every weekend. There are six top teams here.
What chances would you give Bayern Munich in the Premier League?
In terms of the title, Manchester City and Liverpool are so strong. But Bayern would also play a big role in the Premier League and play for the title.