Champions’ League quarter-finals: second leg (Monaco and Chelsea through, Real Madrid and Arsenal out)

Posted by Pierre Igot in: Football
April 7th, 2004 • 12:00 am

Well, well, well. It certainly was an eventful Tuesday in European football, wasn’t it?

That’s the thing with cup competitions… No matter how well you performed in previous rounds, it just takes one slip-up — and you are out.

For Arsenal, the slip-up took the shape of a sub-par second-half performance. During the first half of the game, things were certainly very even. You could even argue that Arsenal deserved their 1-0 lead (through a Reyes goal just before the half-time whistle), because they had an amazing 10-minute period before that in which they thoroughly dominated Chelsea and were unfortunate not to score.

Then the second period happened. Usually, people say that right before half-time is the perfect time to score a goal. Inexplicably, however, after the break Arsenal seemed utterly unprepared for the predictable Chelsea onslaught. With so many players in his squad, Ranieri certainly had enough fire power and fresh legs to cause concern for Wenger. Another cause for concern was Lehmann, whose blunder in the first leg had led to the Chelsea goal. And unfortunately the Arsenal goalkeeper was guilty again. In such crucial games, you expect a word-class goalkeeper to be in top form. Lehmann wasn’t, and spilled a long range shot right in front of him instead of deflecting it safely into the corner area. That was enough for Lampard to pounce and put the ball in the back of the net.

At that stage, everything was perfectly even (1-1 at Stamford Bridge and 1-1 at Highbury), but Chelsea had the psychological advantage of having been behind and come back into the game. The pressure mounted, and a heroic save by Ashley Cole on the goal line after Lehmann went missing in action yet again was not enough. A few minutes later, a piercing run by Chelsea defender Bridge with an assist by Gudjohnsen was enough to end Arsenal hopes. Ironically, it was very much an Arsenal type of goal — a goal that Ashley Cole himself might have scored, with an assist by Robert Pires.

Apart from Lehmann’s blunders, the other factor in this game was Thierry Henry’s performance. He had a few chances, but never looked like he was going to convert them, and tellingly when Bergkamp came on (far too late in the game), it was Thierry who was taken off. Later on, it transpired that he was suffering from a hamstring problem. But surely a player with Thierry’s experience knows when to signal to the bench that he can’t play at 100% and should be taken off. If he stayed on for too long without the ability to fully get involved, then it was a major mistake on his part — one that might have cost his team the qualification.

I think it’s also interesting to remember that, while Louis Saha might argue that van Nistelrooy has little “big game” experience, the same can probably be said of Thierry Henry himself. He was still very young during the 1998 World Cup and didn’t play a big part in the squad. In the Euro 2000 final against Italy, it took a double substitution with Wiltord and Pires to break the deadlock in extra time and change the course of the game. Thierry Henry didn’t play a big part in that game either, if my memory serves me well. And in the 2002 World Cup, France’s miserable run was made worse by the sending off of… Thierry Henry early in the second game against Uruguay for a reckless challenge.

This is not to deny Thierry’s many qualities, of course. But it might very well be that he too still lacks some “big game” experience, and that his sub-par performance last night was a major factor in Arsenal’s ultimate demise.

That being said, there were positive aspects in the game. Reyes was great, and so was Pires. Touré had an amazing shot from 30 yards out that could have been the goal of the year if it hadn’t been tipped over the bar by the Chelsea keeper. And that same Chelsea keeper (their third choice!) had another great save, again on a great Reyes shot in the second half. Had any of these gone in, of course, the game would have been quite different. So ultimately I am afraid the deciding factor was the goal-keeping, and Lehmann was the guilty party. I have never liked his attitude on the pitch, but was willing to forgive him as long as the performances themselves were good. Today, I am not so sure.

You can push the analysis even further and argue that Wenger was the one who chose Lehmann to replace David Seaman. But then you could also argue that Wenger was forced to choose a relatively cheap keeper due to the lack of funds for Arsenal in the transfer market. All season long, the club has been struggling with the tension between the desire to reinforce the squad and the need to save money for the new stadium. Until recently, it looked as if Wenger had managed the seemingly impossible, i.e. to stay competitive with the likes of Manchester United, Chelsea and other big European clubs without spending tons of money on the transfer market. Today, however, things are not so rosy and, while I wouldn’t go as far as to argue that Arsenal is a club in “crisis”, I do wonder what’s next for the club. If Arsène manages to win the Premiership, keep all his players, and get a new world-class keeper, then the club can have great ambitions again for next year. If they fail to reclaim the Premiership crown and lose any of their key players during the summer, however…

Objectively, there is no shame in losing to Manchester United in the semi-final of the FA Cup and to exit the Champions’ League at the quarter-final stage. After all, Chelsea didn’t even make the semi-finals of the FA Cup, and Juventus, Bayern Munich, and Real Madrid are all out of the Champions’ League too. I guess all this talk of a “treble” was a bit premature. Yes, Arsenal have improved on the European stage, but it hasn’t been a complete transformation. They still have work to do before they can really hope to be favourites to get through to the final of the Champions’ League and play the likes of Milan or Real Madrid. They need players like Thierry Henry and their goalkeeper to be in top form in the crucial stages. And they need to have a bigger squad so that they can reasonably compete with the likes of Chelsea without fearing fatigue or untimely injuries.

Because ultimately, that’s what it is all about. Chelsea is through not thanks to the extraordinary quality of the team or the genius of the manager, but because they have so much money and are the toy project of a Russian oil magnate. No matter what the individual qualities of some of their players are or what flashes of collective brilliance they might demonstrate on occasion, there is simply no way that a real football lover can find it in his heart to support a team where unlimited funds totally distort the equation.

That is why, in two weeks’ time, I will be a Monaco supporter. You go, Didier!

4 Responses to “Champions’ League quarter-finals: second leg (Monaco and Chelsea through, Real Madrid and Arsenal out)”

  1. Will says:

    This article isn’t Macintosh related!


  2. Will says:

    No no, I realise you talk a lot about some game with a ball :) but you categorise your articles by topic and this article is claiming to be “Macintosh”, rather than “Football”, related.

  3. Pierre Igot says:

    Ooops! :) Thanks for the correction!

  4. Pierre Igot says:

    Your point being? :-) (This blog is called “Betalogue”, not “Maclogue”…)

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