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Football: GUNNERS GRAB pounds 7M HLEB.

Byline: John CROSS

ARSENE WENGER has tied up a pounds 7million deal for Alexander Hleb - and Stuttgart opened talks with Luis Figo to replace him.

Gunners vice-chairman David Dein flew to Germany last night and midfielder Hleb will be unveiled next week after signing a four-year deal. Wenger confirmed: "The transfer has been completed. He is packing his bags to come to London.''

But in a bizarre twist, Stuttgart coach Giovanni Trapattoni has targeted Real Madrid superstar Figo, 32, to take Hleb's place in a highly ambitious deal for the Bundesliga club.

Figo has been promised a free transfer by Real Madrid as long as any club will take over his pounds 90,000-a-week wages and Stuttgart are now hoping to beat Bolton and Newcastle to his signature.

But Wenger believes he has pulled off an even bigger coup in landing Hleb, whom he sees as a valuable addition, although it puts a major question mark over Robert Pires' future at Highbury.

Pires, 32, has seen contract talks break down because Arsenal are not prepared to give him a two-year extension which has alerted Spanish giants Valencia.

It leaves the way open for Hleb, who made it clear he wanted to quit Stuttgart and move to the Premiership as soon as Arsenal first showed interest.

Wenger has been chasing Hleb since last summer but Stuttgart were demanding pounds 12m after he took the Bundesliga by storm. Arsenal had an initial pounds 4.75m bid turned down and increased it to pounds 6m before finally agreeing terms last night.

Stuttgart's new coach Trapattoni told Hleb he could leave and negotiations between Arsenal and the player's agent, Uli Ferber, have been going on for the past week.

Hleb has now agreed a four-year contract worth around pounds 25,000-a-week and his arrival shows that Arsenal are determined to reclaim back the Premiership title from Chelsea.

Blues boss Jose Mourinho also expressed an interest in Hleb but Arsenal have won the battle and have shown they are prepared to spend big this summer.

The Gunners lost Brazilian midfielder Edu - who joined Valencia on a Bosman-style free transfer - but Wenger regards Hleb as the perfect player to give him extra options and cover for Gilberto and Patrick Vieira.

But the capture of Hleb sends out a strong signal that they are ready to splash the cash in order to battle it out with Chelsea for the Premiership crown.

Arsenal have already offered Spanish striker Jose Antonio Reyes a new two-year contract and are keeping close tabs on Robin van Persie's future after he was arrested over rape allegations in Holland.

It is understood that Dein has been to Holland to try and investigate van Persie's situation.

But the fact that he could miss the start of the season may tempt Arsenal to sign another striker.

Wenger also wants another keeper but is determined to keep his squad together as he believes the arrival of Hleb will make it strong enough to push Chelsea much harder.

CAPTION(S):

ON HIS WAY: Hleb is bound for Highbury
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Title Annotation:Sport
Publication:The Mirror (London, England)
Date:Jun 25, 2005
Words:511
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