James Lawton: Wenger's warriors brought to earth as stars slip out of reach at Stade de France

The roof was supposed to have fallen in on Arsenal in the most important game of their long and noble history. But then something astonishing happened. They looked up and saw the stars and felt they could touch the greatest prize available to them - their first Champions' League trophy. In the end it was an illusion, but they can take pride that they came so close to defying the odds.

Reduced to 10 men, at the mercy of the already legendary Ronaldinho and the most feared attacking force in world club football, they had reasons to dare to believe they could survive and triumph.

However, the cruel sword strokes were delivered by Samuel Eto'o and Juliano Belletti in the 76th and 80th minutes. Arsenal were left with battered pride. It was a cruel shortfall in what they had reasons to believe was their due.

Certain simplicities had presented themselves to Arsène Wenger before the kick-off on the grey night filled with such possibilities - and maybe that touch of dread that surfaced again as Jens Lehmann carried the game to a dimension of draining drama when he was sent off after just 18 minutes.

Dread was something which had invaded Wenger so powerfully, and been relieved so brilliantly by the German goalkeeper in the second leg of the semi-final against Villarreal. A few days ago he admitted that on that night of clammy tension he had failed in one of the manager's primary functions. He had not been able to change the psychology of his team as he feared they would build a fortress around their one-goal lead.

"I knew our best policy was to attack, but they felt they would defend something they had won. They would scrap their way to the final," he said.

Last night the imperative was much more straightforward. Arsenal had to be on top of their game to give themselves a chance against Ronaldinho and the most creative team in Europe. Most importantly, Thierry Henry had to play to optimum levels. He had to inflict himself on the Barcelona defence, he had to breed a little terror in their hearts. Crucially, too, there could be none of the carelessly surrendered possession that marked the performance at Villarreal. The ball had to be moved quickly and accurately and it was no doubt with this in mind that Arsenal restored Robert Pires to the side at the expense of Jose Antonio Reyes. Pires had been brilliant against Juventus at Highbury, as good as Reyes had been disastrous in his native land.

Pires rewarded Wenger with authority on the ball as Arsenal opened with the kind of brisk tempo which so unsettled the troubled Italian champions and Real Madrid in earlier rounds. And Henry bred the terror. He left the hulking Mexican Rafael Marquez marking suddenly empty space when Emmanuel Eboué crossed with fine precision and then saw his shot flash off the outstretched leg of Victor Valdes. The goalkeeper had only seconds to compose himself before he was clutching at a 20-yard shot from the Frenchman, determined to produce a dramatic flourish in what seemed likely to be his final appearance for the team he has led with such artistry and panache.

It was a thrilling early crescendo, a statement that Arsenal had indeed come to play the only kind of game likely to challenge Barca's belief that the Champions' League trophy was not so much a goal as a right.

There was also the prospect of the beautiful game that European football aficionados had been relishing for weeks - a match in which Ronaldinho and Henry, the warrior artists who fashioned their razor skills in poor, hard streets, would be given the perfect backcloth for extraordinary skills.

It was the prettiest prospect; too pretty, too scripted, we would learn soon enough, and if anyone was going to drive us to unlikely drama, and the Arsenal players to the challenge of their football, perhaps the strongest candidate was Lehmann, the eccentric hero of Villarreal, the man who in the final stages of the journey was most responsible for his team's presence in the great stadium.

Lehmann's sending-off was inevitable when he brought down the electric Eto'o on the edge of the box. But what followed was not; what followed was something that had memories of Istanbul and Liverpool's extraordinary recovery against Milan in last year's final swirling back into the consciousness.

One elderly Frenchman inquired dryly: "Can't you English win this damn trophy without some drama?"

It was a question that tempted outrageous fate when Sol Campbell, whose career was supposed to be in ruins a few months ago, connected with massive conviction to head Arsenal into a 38th-minute lead. Henry had produced a perfectly weighted free kick after Eboué had dived his way to a free-kick on the right.

Barcelona laid sieged to the 10 men, naturally, and Manuel Almunia, without an appearance in the Premiership this season, was required to produce a brilliant reflex save to deny Eto'o. Deco worked himself into a lather of industry, Ronaldinho tried some broad strokes that didn't work, and Eto'o continued to harass Kolo Touré and Campbell. But when half-time came, like the respite in a gruelling heavyweight title fight, Arsenal, improbably, and gloriously, were still clinging to their slender, haunting advantage.

Barcelona were haunted soon enough, however. Their failure to penetrate Arsenal's defiant cover in the opening phase of the second half brought a rash of inhibitions to a normally flowing game. Even Ronaldinho was affected, reduced to a series of optimistic flicks.

However, the pressure of the tide was formidable and when the veteran Swedish striker Henrik Larsson came on in his last action for Barcelona, a vital element of craft was added.

It was the knowing Larsson who laid on the chances in Barcelona's final lacerating charge, delivering perfectly executed passes to Eto'o and unlikely matchwinner Belletti for the killing goals.

Arsenal finally could look back only on a night of misadventure - and considerable gallantry. If they could bear to do it, that is.

Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and the Dalek meet
tvReview: Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
Arts and Entertainment
books
Sport
Diego Costa
footballEverton 3 Chelsea 6: Diego Costa double has manager purring
Life and Style
3D printed bump keys can access almost any lock
gadgets + techSoftware needs photo of lock and not much more
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Inside the gallery at Frederick Bremer School in Walthamstow
tvSimon Usborne goes behind the scenes to watch the latest series
Life and Style
Silvia says of her famous creation: 'I never stopped wearing it. Because I like to wear things when they are off the radar'
fashionThe fashion house celebrated fifteen years of the punchy pouch with a weighty tome
Arts and Entertainment
Gregg Wallace in Summer's Supermarket Secrets
tv All of this year's 15 contestants have now been named
News
i100Steve Carell selling chicken, Tina Fey selling saving accounts and Steve Colbert selling, um...
Life and Style
A picture taken on January 12, 2011 shows sex shops at the Paris district of Pigalle.
newsThe industry's trade body issued the moratorium on Friday
Arts and Entertainment
Could we see Iain back in the Bake Off tent next week?
tv Contestant teased Newsnight viewers on potential reappearance
News
i100
News
The slice of Prince Charles and Princess Diana's wedding cake and the original box from 29 July 1981
newsPiece of Charles and Diana's wedding cake sold at auction in US
Voices
The Ukip leader has consistently refused to be drawn on where he would mount an attempt to secure a parliamentary seat
voicesNigel Farage: Those who predicted we would lose momentum heading into the 2015 election are going to have to think again
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne made her acting debut in Anna Karenina in 2012
film Cara Delevingne 'in talks' to star in Zoolander sequel
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

Bleacher Report

Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Day In a Page

Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

A fresh take on an old foe

Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
Ukraine crisis: The phoney war is over as Russian troops and armour pour across the border

The phoney war is over

Russian troops and armour pour into Ukraine
Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

The world’s entire food system is under attack - and Britain is most at risk, according to a new study
Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

Seoul's plastic surgery industry is booming thanks to the popularity of the K-Pop look
From Mozart to Orson Welles: Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

After the death of Sandy Wilson, 90, who wrote his only hit musical in his twenties, John Walsh wonders what it's like to peak too soon and go on to live a life more ordinary
Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

Fears are mounting that Vladimir Putin has instructed hackers to target banks like JP Morgan
Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years

Salomé: A head for seduction

Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years. Now audiences can meet the Biblical femme fatale in two new stage and screen projects
From Bram Stoker to Stanley Kubrick, the British Library's latest exhibition celebrates all things Gothic

British Library celebrates all things Gothic

Forthcoming exhibition Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination will be the UK's largest ever celebration of Gothic literature
The Hard Rock Café's owners are embroiled in a bitter legal dispute - but is the restaurant chain worth fighting for?

Is the Hard Rock Café worth fighting for?

The restaurant chain's owners are currently embroiled in a bitter legal dispute
Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival

In search of Caribbean soul food

Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival
11 best face powders

11 best face powders

Sweep away shiny skin with our pick of the best pressed and loose powder bases
England vs Norway: Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

Lack of Englishmen at leading Premier League clubs leaves manager hamstrung
Angel Di Maria and Cristiano Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

Di Maria and Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

They both inherited the iconic shirt at Old Trafford, but the £59.7m new boy is joining a club in a very different state
Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference