Larsson heads for home after the perfect finishing touch
Sunday 21 May 2006
Few men have done as much for Barcelona, or Celtic, in an entire career as Henrik Larsson achieved in a little over half an hour as a decisive substitute at the Stade de France on Wednesday evening. The bare statistics tell the tale: 33 minutes of action; two assists for goals; a single yellow card; and a victory that took the European Cup to Catalunya for only the second time and, with it, automatic Champions' League qualification for his Scottish former club.
It was some way of saying adios to top-level club football before retreating to complete an exceptional career with his home-town side Helsingborg.
No wonder the 34-year-old Swedish striker was close to tears in the aftermath of last week's extraordinary events in Paris where his introduction by Frank Rijkaard as an orthodox, but mobile, centre-forward proved a masterstroke.
Until then, for all of Barcelona's possession, Ronaldinho's bewitching trickery and Samuel Eto'o's fleet-footed threat, Arsenal had stood firm in defence of their slim advantage. But his arrival changed everything.
The following day, after ending English hopes of triumph, he spoke of his joy at receiving an honorary MBE for services to British football a week earlier. The news was leaked with such timing that it reeked of an irony that can only have been intended by a Spurs supporter born in Scotland, where Larsson scored 242 goals in 315 appearances and seven years with Celtic before his departure in 2004.
Yet on Wednesday it was Larsson's ability to play with his back to goal, rather than his eye for it, that paved the way for the passes that allowed Eto'o and Juliano Belletti to fire in shots that beat Manuel Almunia at his near post in front of the glorious blue-and-red inferno that was created by the Spanish supporters.
For Larsson, it was a perfect send-off before a return to a quieter life in the southern Swedish outpost that lies just two miles across the Strait of Oeresund from Hamlet's Elsinore. He has signed to play on for a further 18 months and to spend more time with his family.
"I'm almost 35," he said. "I've got two kids and they need to understand how we live in Sweden. My house there is finished and we need to go back there to live now. Also, I still want to play football. I feel that I haven't played as much as I would really love to play because of the many great players at Barcelona. I think I have at least one or two more years of playing at a decent level before I have to stop - and I would like to do that playing for 90 minutes each week."
So, after the World Cup finals in Germany, where Larsson will be an important member of Lars Lagerback's Swedish squad and could inflict damage on England's cause when they meet in Cologne on 20 June, there will be no return to the Nou Camp, where he has enjoyed sustained success in the last two years, albeit mostly as a substitute and squad man. "Whatever happens, that was a fantastic way for me to end my Barcelona career," he said. "It was a very tough match and the whole team deserve credit for that win.
"For me, it was unbelievable. I have had a fantastic experience in my two years with Barcelona, winning two league titles and now this. Honestly, it has been amazing. But it was not easy at all against Arsenal.
"When I came on, Frank Rijkaard's instructions to me were to stay central, but to move a lot and to try and open up their defence and to win the game. Well, I guess we succeeded!"
The final word: Lehmann raises World Cup alarm
The ideal thing would have been to wait a few seconds. If I'd done that, I could have allowed the goal and eventually given a yellow card.
Referee Terje Hauge on the Jens Lehmann sending-off
I hope he has learned from it and will not do the same during the World Cup. I was joking during the game saying at least Jens cannot get injured now.
Olivier Bierhoff, German team manager, on Lehmann
Please no new debate about who should be Germany goalkeeper.
Thomas Schaaf, the Werder Bremen coach
Jens is mentally strong enough to deal with this. It's psychological nonsense if you think that something like that will repeat itself. It's a one-off.
Oliver Kahn, Germany's No 2 No 1
We never lost hope that we could turn the game around. We had the play, it was just a question of finding the finishing.
I never even dreamed of the possibility. When I scored, I thought about those players who aren't usually mentioned in the press.
Juliano Belletti, the matchwinner
A Barça victory in Europe was just a question of time. But now comes the hard part and that is staying at the top.
I hope to stay as long as I can keep running. I couldn't leave the fans, they're like family.
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