Champions’ League final: Barcelona 2 – Arsenal 1

Posted by Pierre Igot in: Football
May 17th, 2006 • 8:42 pm

Well, that was a rather massive disappointment… Not just because the Gunners lost, but first and foremost because the game was ruined fairly early on by a rather dubious decision. Lehmann’s grab on the foot of Eto’o was probably half-intentional, but was it enough to bring him down, or did he make a big deal out of it? And whatever happened to the advantage rule? Giuly scored, Barcelona could have been given the goal, and maybe Lehmann would have got a yellow card, and that would have been it—and maybe we would still have had a game.

Instead, Lehmann got sent off, and we got the rather predictable outcome… with a couple of interesting twists, of course, namely the Sol Campbell goal and Thierry Henry’s clear-cut chance to make 2-0 in the second half. His shot was saved, and it all fell apart from Arsenal in the last 20 minutes in the pouring rain.

Unfortunately, in spite of the nice goal by Sol Campbell (after yet another dubious free-kick, awarded to Arsenal this time), the Gunners did instinctively drop back after Lehmann got sent off, which you can hardly blame them for. Barcelona managed to block most counter-attacking attempts by the Gunners through cynical fouls that were left unpunished by the referee. And eventually Almunia demonstrated that he wasn’t up to the task by failing to come out early enough to block Eto’o first goal, and by basically letting the ball through his legs for the second one.

It would have taken a miracle for the Gunners to draw level in the dying minutes of the second half. Reyes was brought on far too late to have any impact. And Barcelona just kept the ball without even trying to play.

So basically, because of rather poor refereeing, the massively hyped game failed to live up to expectations. Ronaldinho was not particularly impressive, and the key player for Barcelona was the substitute Larsson, who got an assist on both goals. Barcelona might have won, but they didn’t really impress by being all that superior. They were given a huge assist by the referee, when Arsenal had clearly dominated the first 20 minutes of the game before Lehmann got sent off.

I am afraid that the downpour at the end was rather symbolic of the whole affair. It was one huge pétard mouillé, as we say in French (literally, a “wet firecracker”). It certainly failed to reach the spectacular heights of last year’s final.

It might be typical of sore losers to blame the referee, but ultimately even Barcelona fans have to admit that his decision to send Lehmann off had a huge impact on the game, because it eliminated the chance to witness the fireworks that everyone was hoping for. And it’s not like he didn’t have a choice. He could have played advantage and given Barcelona the goal. Because of his decision (which he now admits he has doubts about), essentially we’ll never know what a real final with 11 against 11 might have produced.

The Arsenal team can be proud of what they have achieved this season and of the fact that they were essentially 20 minutes away from glory. And they can be proud of the fact that Barcelona weren’t convincingly a superior team on the night.

The big question now is of course what Thierry Henry will do. Based on the reports of the commentators about Henry arguing with Wenger on the side lines during the game, apparently urging him to make a substitution so that he could get more support to attack, it definitely sounded as if the relationship between the Gunners’ manager and his talismanic striker was nearing breaking point. But maybe it was largely an exaggeration on the part of the commentators. Henry himself says that he’s only going to start thinking about it now.

There is little doubt that if he leaves—as he’s entitled to do, of course—the current team will likely fall apart and definitely need to be rebuilt. And then, what would be so glorious about joining a Spanish team that is already winning everything at the moment? He might help them win a third consecutive Spanish title, or a second Champions’ League, but it would never be as glorious as what he has already achieved and can still achieve with Arsenal.

There’s no reason not to think that, with a couple of key additions, this team full of talented youngsters can still go very far, and Thierry Henry still has several years of top-class performance ahead of him if he can avoid serious injury. If he stayed at Arsenal, he could also go on to beat all kinds of club and English league records.

Of course, the question is also whether Arsène Wenger is willing and able to make these two or three key acquisitions that he would need to make this summer. While the French manager has a terrific track record when it comes to moulding players and helping youngsters break through, his record when it comes to acquiring already established players is pretty dismal. Unless he suddenly changes his habits, we’ll see more of the same this summer, and basically the issue will be whether Thierry Henry trusts Wenger to be able to put together a team that can win big in the next couple of years—and not in 4, 5, or 6 years.

Oh well, now we get three weeks without any football and then the 2006 World Cup. It’s hard to know what to expect this time. Nobody is betting on the French team going very far, with its aging midfield and rather dubious defence (Boumsong? Silvestre? Good Lord…) The English team will definitely miss Rooney big time, the same way that Manchester United would miss him. The Brazilians are the favourites, as usual, but today’s game showed that Ronaldinho is not necessary so clearly superior, The Italian team will inevitably be affected by the current scandals. And the Germans… Well, it’ll be interesting to see how well Lehmann does for them, that’s for sure!

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