James Lawton: Wenger's warriors brought to earth as stars slip out of reach at Stade de France
Thursday 18 May 2006
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.
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