Lehmann sent off 18
Holy shit, where to begin? The match lived up to the hype, but in a very different way.
If you missed the match, ESPN2 is replaying it tonight at 9.30 p.m. PST (12.30 a.m. EST), and it is totally worth checking out/taping/TiVo-ing.
Titi & Ronny: respect among badasses
A Beautiful Start
Initially I was less than pleased that Wenger opted to start with Pires instead of Reyes, because Reyes' fantastic pace would be difficult for Barca to defend, but then I quickly figured out what I assumed to be Wenger's plan: bring Reyes on for Pires after 60 minutes, and Reyes would be even more dangerous with his fresh legs against the tiring Barca players in the last half hour.
From the get go Arsenal came out and attacked, and in the first 10 minutes looked very dangerous. Henry had 2 wonderful chances, both well saved by
"We love you Arsenal, we do! Oh, Arsenal, we love you!"
The moment that changed the match
But the "dream final" lasted only 18 minutes. A wonderful through ball from Ronaldinho put Eto'o through 1-on-1 with Lehmann. Lehman came out, Eto'o tried to go around him, and Mats took him down. By rule the keeper must be given a straight red and sent off if he is the last defender and takes out a striker who is alone 1-on-1 with him. The referee blew the whistle and Mats was shown the red card. Fortunately for Arsenal this occurred about half a yard outside the box, so Barca had a free kick from 19 yards rather than a penalty kick.
Eto'o tries to round Mats
This will forever be the talking point of this match, and my $.02 is that the referee had no choice and did the right thing.
Mats goes for the ball but misses and takes Eto'o down
So Mats, arguably the best keeper in the world right now, is off and dodgy backup Manuel Almunia comes in. Mats became the first player to ever be sent off in a Champions League final, and given his history and zany personality something about that statistic just seemed appropriate. Midfielder Robert Pires must be sacrificed, and his night ends early. He was clearly gutted and you had to feel for him, being a Frenchman in perhaps his final Arsenal match being played in Paris, not to mention the fact that he was not named to France's World Cup squad, so this match was his World Cup Final. A sad way for him to end his storied Arsenal career if indeed he moves on.
The red mist descends on Stade de France: Mats is off.
So Wenger has to use 1 of his allowed 3 substitutions, has to sacrifice Pires to replace his keeper, and Arsenal now have to play the last 72 minutes with only 10 men to Barca's 11. Playing a man down for this long, against probably Europe's best offense, is an extremely tall order for Arsenal. This will mean that Arsenal's tactical options have been reduced to 1: play 4-4-1, defend, and leave Henry alone & stranded up front, hoping to somehow nick a goal from a set piece or a TH14 moment of magic. Additionally, they will eventually get extremely tired chasing the ball, while at the same time conceding lots of open space to Barca's feared attack. Think of a hockey team with a man in the penalty box defending the other team's power play. For 72 minutes. Arsenal were up against it.
When the whistle was blown the ball was falling to Guily, who promptly placed it in the empty net. If the referee had played advantage then Barca would have been up 1-0 and Arsenal would still have had 11 men. Ronaldino lined up the free kick, and from such a short distance the only way he would fail to score is if he missed the target or shot it into the wall. If he placed it where he wanted to there are not many goalies in the world who could save one of his free kicks from so close, and certainly Almunia (with no warmup whatsoever) is not among these select few. Fortuantely Ronaldinho just missed the target, and the score remained 0-0. At this point both teams probably wish the referee had played advantage, because Barca would have been 1-0 up, and Arsenal would remain at full strength.
So on we went with a game that now had an extremely different shape. Arsenal would defend, absorb Barca's pressure, and know that they would get very few good scoring opportunities that they absolutely must take advantage of. Barca would take their time, work the ball around, make Arsenal chase the ball, wear them down, and create many, many chances with their extra man.
1-0 To The Arsenal
Arsenal managed to win a free kick just to the right of the box when Puyol impeded Eboue's run. The replay made it seem like there was little contact, and in fact there wasn't, but in real time it sure looks like Puyol's cut across move impedes Eboue's run. For the Barca fans that have a big problem with this, they should be reminded of Puyol falling over and getting Shevchenko's equaliser for Milan disallowed in the waning moments of their semifinal for a non-foul on Sheva.
Titi prepares to take free kick.
Henry crosses what is essentially a short corner and the ball meets the head of colossus Sol Campbell, whose snap header is perfectly placed into the side panel of the net. Ecstasy. Improbably 10 man Arsenal lead Barca 1-0. Can they hold out for 53 more minutes for the most famous "1-0 to The Arsenal" of all time?
Sol scores an absolutly brilliant header
"One-Nil to The Arsenal!"
They weather the ensuing Barcelona storm and make it to halftime 1-0 to the good. Almunia makes an amazing save on Eto'o, who with his back to goal and Campbell on his back, receives a pass from Ronaldinho and makes one of the best turns I have ever seen, going around Campbell in a flash and creating space for a left footed rocket shot that Almunia somehow gets his fingertips on and diverts onto the post, the best friend of any goalkeeper. At halftime the Lehmann red card seems almost serendipitous, as it prevented a goal, although another 45 minutes on tiring legs will be extremely dicey.
Halftime. Can they hold on?
The second half started and Barcelona had a good bit of the ball, but Arsenal continued to go forward and attack despite being a man down. They were bravely runnning their socks off and courageously attacking trying to get a second, and they created three great chances to go up 2-0. Hleb barely missed the post with a low left footed shot, and Ljungburg forced a great save from Valdes, but TH14 had the best chance. With only the keeper to beat, albeit from a bit of an angle, he shot low and Valdes saved it. A golden opportunity gone wanting. It seems that all he had to do was chip Valdes rather than try to beat him low and it would have been 2-0 to the Arse.
Eto'o draws Barca level
Shortly after this the long, slow, grinding effect of playing a man down for so long begins to show, and Arsenal start to visibly tire. Finally in the 76th minute Barca proves too much, and Eto'o plays a brilliant 1-2 (give & go) with Larsson, finds himself 1-1 with Almunia, and slots it home to Almunia's near post. An absolutely beautiful goal and it's 1-1.
Eto'o finishes brilliant run & slots home to make it 1-1.
Almunia Remembers That He Is Almunia
Arsenal are clearly running on E now, and wave after wave of Barca attacks come forward. In the 81st minute Barca fullback Belletti goes on an overlapping run into the box, receives a great pass, and shoots from an angle hard but right at Almunia. Any keeper worth a shit blocks this shot, but Almunia somehow allows the shot to go between his legs and into the net. In 5 minutes Barca have gone from 1-nil down to 2-1 up, and Arsenal look damn near out of gas.
This image is so sickening, I cannot
even come up with a clever tagline for it
Nine minutes to go and now Arsenal need a moment of magic from Henry or some other form of circus shit to happen. The problem is that they have run their hearts out so valiantly but are now totally out of gas. Reyes needs to come on immediately, yet for some reason Wenger waits until the 86th minute to bring on the speedy fresh legs that were likely Arsenal's only longshot chance. The last 9 minutes are excruiciatingly painful, as Arsenal cannot even get posession, as Barca play keep ball, spread out, pass the ball around, and make the exhausted Arsenal players chase their fresh legs. Arsenal never even got a good chance and the match ended 2-1 to Barcelona.
Argentina 98, Solskjaer's dive 03, Portugal 04, left out
of FA Cup Final 05, now this. Sol understands the book of Job.
An excruciatingly painful way to watch your team come from ahead to lose the biggest match in their history, especially because you knew 72 minutes a man down was going to be tough, and then you could see them slowly but surely wear down and run out of gas. Still, every Arsenal supporter should be proud of the team. They absolutely ran their hearts out, put up more than a valiant effort, and were couragoues. Plain and simple, you cannot fault the effort. Every single player on the team played great (apart from Almunia's howler). Henry, Ljungberg, and Ashley Cole especially ran their socks off. More frustrating that Mats definitely would have saved Barca's winner, and very possibly their equaliser.
Gutted: Freddy thinks what might
have been as Barca celebrate
It is one of those losses that leaves you absolutely gutted, making you almost wish that your team had been thrashed from the start and never had a chance, rather than take you to the brink of ecstasy before breaking your heart (think Red Sox, 1920-2003).
Much will be written about Henry & Wenger's heated converstations during the match, where Henry was wanting Wenger to bring on Reyes and go for it and Wenger chose a more cautious approach. Volumes will be written about what this means vis-a-vis Henry's monumental decision whether to stay at Arsenal or leave this summer, and most will prognosticate the this will make Henry lean towards leaving (I still think he will stay).
Ils sont desolee.
Is this the end for Titi?
So after all the buildup of the "dream final" featuring the "beautiful game" we got an altogether different, although just as compelling match where 10 man Arsenal took and valiantly held their lead only to be overtaken by lactic acid, Barca's relentless attack, and Almunia's howler in the end. And we are all left to wonder what might have been if 11 played 11 for 90 minutes and/or beyond. But such is football.
I can only hope one day that Arsenal make it back to the Champions League Final, hopefully under Arsene Wenger, so that they might exorcise the demons of 17 May 2006 and finally become European Champions. As long as Wenger remains manager of Arsenal Football Club I will believe in my heart that this is possible.