England duo rise to challenge in face of Spanish Inquisition

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The Independent Online

When Sol Campbell substituted himself against West Ham back in February, few would have expected him being entrusted to start in a contest of this stature three months later. When Ashley Cole was caught playing away with Chelsea's representatives, many expected an exodus for the left-back by the end of the season. On a night when manager Arsène Wenger demonstrated that his faith in both was undiminished, both expected nothing less than a Spanish Inquisition. They were not to be disappointed.

Both men had much to prove. When Campbell poured water over his head before the start it was as though he was cooling the fire within. Both he and Cole exhorted their more restrained team-mates to make one final momentous effort at the end of this extraordinary season.

Cole did well to block Ludovic Giuly, nicking the ball away, but was unfortunate when the ball ran kindly for the Frenchman and he forced Jens Lehmann into his first save of the night.

Otherwise, early on, the Gunners' rearguard looked steady enough. It was the midfield who were offering Ronaldinho and Co half chances with some poor distribution. That could not have been more brutally demonstrated than by Gilberto's overhead pass to Alexander Hleb, an error which culminated in Lehmann's dismissal after he had felled Samuel Eto'o. Now reduced to 10 men, the challenge could hardly have been more daunting but in that first half the England pair rose to it. Cole was Arsenal's saviour with a splendid tackle on Giuly, while Campbell and Kolo Touré continued to negate Ronaldinho and his fellow attackers, who were threatening to penetrate the centre of the Arsenal backline.

Campbell's walkout of the West Ham match always brings his character into question and raises doubts about his future with Arsenal. It's as well that Wenger and not Tony Adams is his manager. As the latter reflected on the eve of the match, he would have hauled the England centre-back back on to the pitch after the interval of that Premiership game. Oh, and he would have started last night's game with Philippe Senderos. The Swiss defender can consider himself decidedly unfortunate not to have started, as indeed could Mathieu Flamini, a worthy understudy to Cole.

Yet, Adams would no doubt have changed his mind dramatically by half-time here. Barcelona had failed to truly assert and it was Campbell who did what he is always capable of, rising to head home the opener from Thierry Henry's free-kick. Never mind that the award for it had been highly dubious. The Arsenal back-line held heroically until the interval, although they were relieved that Lehmann's replacement, Manuel Almunia performed superbly to deflect an Eto'o shot on to a post.

For half an hour, Campbell, in tandem with Touré, continued to repel everything that Rijkaard's men could muster. But two Barcelona goals - both crafted by Henrik Larsson - and the Arsenal spirit was broken. At the final whistle, Campbell sunk to his haunches; Cole put his head to his hands. The England men will seek solace in their World Cup adventures. You expect that it was Cole's last act in an Arsenal shirt. For Campbell, though, who can say?