By Anthony McClean, Editor In Chief Emeritus NEW HAVEN (BASN) —...
Eto’o, Larsson, Rijkaard guide FC Barcelona to Champions League Glory
MIAMI — It wasn’t their most breath taking performance.
It wasn’t done with the tremendous all attacking flair that soccer fans around the world had come to expect from this great side.
What it was, on this night of firsts, was pragmatic, searching and eventually effective as FC Barcelona came from a goal down to overcome a game Arsenal side that was reduced to 10 men, to capture its second European Champions League title and first in 14 years by virtue of a 2-1 win in a rain soaked Stade de France on the outskirts of Paris.
The 50th edition of the Champions League final was one of the most anticipated in recent memory. Two attack minded teams with impressive credentials and recognized stars were on display.
England’s Arsneal was playing in its first Champions League Final and the Thierry Henry led side was looking to bring back to back Champions League honors back to England after Liverpool’s triumph in Turkey a year earlier. Their stellar defense had produced shutouts in every Champions League match since October.
For their part, Barcelona was looking to cap off a fabulous domestic campaign which saw the Catalan giants win their second straight La Liga title behind the playmaking of World Player of the Year Ronaldinho and 3 time African player of the Year Samuel Eto’o.
It didn’t take long for Arsenal to get the party started. Just three minutes in, Thierry Henry forced two key saves out of Barcelona’s GK, Victor Valdes. First he received a centering pass from Cote D’Ivoire international Emmanuel Eboue.
His beautiful first touch took him away from Mexican center back Rafael Marquez and saw him one on one with Valdes. Valdes was able to stop the shot and on the ensuing corner kick stopped Henry again as he fired in a shot from about 17 yards out.
Barcelona got its first attempt on goal 6 minutes later when French International Ludovic Giuly drilled a shot that was saved by a well positioned Jens Lehmann in goal for Arsenal. This was followed by a shot from Deco in the 17th minute after he stole the ball from Arsenal left back Ashley Cole. Again, Lehmann was well positioned for the save.
However a minute later the incident which would have a profound effect on the match unfolded. Ronaldinho was given a yard of space about 40 yards from goal and threaded a perfect through ball to Eto’o.
The Cameroonian International beat the offside trap and found himself one on one with Lehmann. He side stepped Lehmann and looked to be on his way to goal but Lehmann reached out, grabbed his ankle and tripped him, but not before Eto’o released the ball to Giuly who scored the goal.
The referee’s whistle had blown. The goal was waved off but Lehmann, for tripping Eto’o and keeping him from a clear goal scoring opportunity, was shown a red card, the first time a player was sent off in a Champions League final. It was clear that Lehmann had to be sent off for his trip but what wasn’t clear was why the goal was disallowed.
The referee should have played advantage and the play continue which would have resulted in a goal for Barcelona and possibly only a yellow card for Lehmann. Instead Barcelona was awarded a free kick as the foul occurred out side the penalty area. Ronaldinho bent the free kick just left of the goal leaving the scoreline in tact but Arsenal with a large task ahead of them.
Barcelona began dominate possession. Ronaldinho fed Giuly on the right but the Frenchman’s shot was nicely saved by Manuel Almunia who replaced Lehmann. Ronaldinho also missed another free kick and Deco forced a save out of Almunia who settled into the match nicely.
It was in the 38th minute that Barca began to rue their missed chances…and the one goal that was taken away. Eboue managed to get forward on the right for Arsenal and fooled the referee into thinking he was fouled just to the right of the penalty area. Henry stepped up and delived a free kick that was met majestically by the head of English international Sol Campbell.
Campbell, who suffered through an injury blighted season and was once so disgusted by his poor play during a match earlier this season that he actually left the stadium at half time, lost his marker and scored his first ever Champions League goal, giving Arsenal an improbable 1-0 lead.Stunned, Barcelona began probing for an equalizer and thought they had it two minutes into injury time when Ronaldinho fed Eto’o in the box. With his back to goal, Eto’o flicked the ball with his right foot and found spun away from Sol Campbell only to see his effort on goal brilliantly saved onto the left post by Almunia. A tremendous momentum saver for Arsenal and they entered the break up 1-0.
FC Barcelona coach Rijkaard looked to inject some offense into his lineu, replacing Edmilson with Andres Iniesta and Deco signalled Barca’s intent with an effort on goal two minutes after the break. Barcelona continued to dominate posession as they searched for an equalizer. Iniesta forced a save from Almunia after shooting from the edge of the area.
Ronaldinho was fouled but his 56th minute free kick was hit into the wall. Almunia then brilliantly snagged a cross from Ronaldinho after he dribbled down the left side and tried to feed the ball into the center.
In the 60th minute, Rijkaard brought on his second substitute in the form of Swede Henrik Larsson, playing his final game for Barcelona. Samuel Eto set up Ronaldinho two minutes later after getting into the area on the left side but the Brazillian shanked his shot.
This semed to inspire Arsenal because they went on the attack after spending most of match defending their goal. Spanish international Cesc Fabregas, who came up through the Barcelona youth system before signing with Arsenal streaked down the left side and fed Henry in the center.
Henry laid a pass off to Alexander Hleb who drilled his shot just outside the near post. Freddy Ljundberg then stripped Presas Oleguer and streaked down the left side. He entered the penalty area and blasted a shot that Valdes was able to tip over the bar for a corner.
Two minutes later in the 70th, Hleb sprung Henry through the middle but the Frenchman’s shot was saved as he tried to fight off Marquez.
Rijkaard played his last card in the 72nd minute, introducing Juliano Belletti for Oleguer and the coaching moves by the former Dutch great were about to pay off.
Iniesta hustled down the left side of midfield and laid a pass into Larsson. The son of a Cape Verdian father Swedish mother laid off a deft touch pass to a streaking Eto’o who was one on one with Almunia. Eto’o took one touch, weighed his options and then squeezed the ball between Alumina and the near post. Barcelona’s fans erupted and after 995 minutes of Champions Leauge football, Arsneal’s defense was finally breached. 1-1.Barcelona’s fans began to sing louder urging their side on for a match winner while Arsenal’s fans implored their side to hold on. The rain began to intensify and Barcelona’s offense began to as well. In 3 minutes it was over.
Barcelona continued to control possession and worked the ball from left to right to Belleti who had come forward. He fed the ball into the right corner for Larsson who returned it with a deft pass into the area. Belleti laid into his shot which struck Almunia on the leg and into net.
Belliti collasped in a mixture of joy and disbelief as if the fact that he had just scored the go ahead goal was too much for him to bear. A massive dog pile ensued as Barca’s players celebrated in the rain. Just 11 minutes to go and they now had the lead.Arsenal tried to mount a comeback of their own but being a man down and now exhausted, it just was not to be and after three additional minutes of stoppage time, FC Barcelona were champions of Europe.
For a team that made its name this season on brilliant and stylish attacking it was their patience and composure during the time that they trailed that helped turn the tide. Frank Rijkaard’s moves, bringing on Iniesta, Belletti and Larsson all paid off and earned him a place in history as the first Black coach to win a major European soccer championship and just the fifth to win as both a coach and player.It was a game effort by Arsenal who will now ponder their future among reports that Henry may leave the club. For a team that was in transition having lost influential captain Patrick Vieira in the offseason gaining the final was a major accomplishment.
But in the end, Europe’s best team from start to finish raised the trophy as Europe’s best club side.