They have talked about the weight of history at Highbury all season and last night Arsenal stood on the brink of writing one more remarkable chapter. But against the greatest attacking team in the world, in the European Cup final, the assassination took place in the space of four minutes - and when they struck Barcelona were brutal.
It was the dream ending for Arsenal until the 76th minute. Jens Lehmann's red card after 19 minutes had left them with 10 men and a goalkeeper in Manuel Almunia who had not pulled on his gloves in competitive action for four months. The German goalkeeper was heroic in the semi-final against Villarreal, it seemed that the mantle had been passed to Sol Campbell who scored an unlikely header on 37 minutes to give Arsenal the lead.
Sweet redemption for Campbell and an astonishing return to form. But the game was eventually turned by the substitute Henrik Larsson, who carved open a hitherto resistant Arsenal defence twice to let in first Samuel Eto'o and then the substitute Juliano Belletti to exact a dreadful revenge on Arsenal.
This was to be the last game for Arsenal for Robert Pires. We knew that because yesterday the Villarreal president Fernando Roig announced they were signing the 32-year-old just hours before the game, the timing, you suspected, was intended to be unhelpful. But as his role has dwindled during the season, a last stand in Paris must have seemed like a spectacular way to say farewell.
Neither Pires nor Arsène Wenger could know just how quickly and bitterly it was to end, Pires trudging off after 20 minutes to be substituted for the reserve goalkeeper Almunia as Arsenal's plan unravelled. How suddenly it all fell apart. One quick ball from Ronaldinho through a flat Arsenal defence and Samuel Eto'o broke off the shoulder of Campbell to go through on Lehmann's goal. One touch allowed the Barcelona strike to steer a course past Lehmann before the goalkeeper reached out an arm and clipped his ankle.
If Lehmann at least did one thing right then Arsenal can give thanks that the contact was outside the area - but apart from that it was nothing short of disastrous. Ludovic Giuly poked the ball into an empty net but the whistle had already blown. The Arsenal fans behind the goal waited mournfully like a defendant's family in a court gallery for a verdict that seemed inevitable. It was a red card, and Wenger's plans were wrecked.
Pires made a sad departure for the last time as an Arsenal player, Freddie Ljungberg was called back into the left-wing role and Thierry Henry was left, decidedly alone in attack. There was mercy, at least, in Ronaldinho's free-kick from the edge of the area which did not even press Almunia into a save. Henry tried to raise the mood of his team-mates in the next break in play but their desolation was compounded by the strength with which they had started the game.
In just three minutes, Emmanuel Eboué had broken down the right wing and cut the ball back for Henry who, with one touch, spun round Rafael Marquez and shot into the body of Victor Valdes. It was a warning, and from the corner, the Arsenal captain forced the goalkeeper into a save at his near post.
Henry had the mastery of Marquez but in the minutes after the sending off he saw precious little of possession. Ronaldinho, retreating into a central role behind the strikers, took control of the plotting. A wild lunge at Giovanni van Bronkhorst's thigh by Eboué might have earned him a red card in different circumstances, this time referee Terje Hauge let him off with a booking.
The 22-year-old from the Ivory Coast is an intriguing prospect. Reckless and refined in the space of a minute, he dribbled around Ronaldinho in one run and then left the ball behind him ten yards on. But he was central to Arsenal's goal on 37 minutes which came in the thick of Barcelona pressure that seemed to be building towards a goal.
Breaking in from the right Eboué clipped the ball through the legs of Carles Puyol and, as he went past the Barcelona captain, executed a dive that somehow convinced referee Hauge. Henry struck the free-kick from the right and Campbell rose above Oleguer to steer a powerful, delicate header past Valdes.
It left the Barcelona end dumbfounded, it was the last outcome anyone expected. Composing themselves took Barcelona a few minutes, Deco began to exert an influence and then, in the third minute of injury-time, the speed and strength of Eto'o fashioned another chance. With his back to Campbell, and from a standing start, he turned with power and speed, beating the Arsenal defender before striking a low shot. Almunia's reflex save with his right hand was remarkable.
The last time Almunia played for Arsenal they lost a FA Cup third round tie to Bolton on 28 January and his time at the club had not yet seen him secure a reputation as a goalkeeper of complete reliability. And yet last night, he might have been playing there all season. A shot from Iniesta was well-stopped, then when Ronaldinho cut in from the right he got a hand to the cross.
Ljungberg may not have imagined he could top his performance at the Bernabeu against Real Madrid but he saved the best for last night. Sent back to the left wing he still managed to occupy the space behind Henry, stealing the ball from Oleguer on 67 minutes before cutting in and shooting. Alexander Hleb also went close and Henry stole through on 69 minutes but struck a low shot into Valdes.
Almunia was the culprit for both Barcelona goals. On 77 minutes, Ronaldinho fed Larsson who flicked the ball off for Eto'o - he cut in from the left and beat the Spanish goalkeeper inside his near post. Then four minutes later the attack came down the right, Larsson cut the ball inside and Belletti surged through to strike a shot through Almunia's legs - it was a cruel way to go.
Arsenal (4-4-1-1): Lehmann; Eboué, Touré, Campbell, Cole; Hleb (Reyes, 85), Gilberto, Fabregas (Flamini, 74), Pires (Almunia, 20); Ljungberg; Henry. Substitutes not used: Bergkamp, Van Persie, Senderos, Clichy.
Barcelona (4-3-3): Valdes; Oleguer (Belletti, 72), Marquez, Puyol, Van Bronkhorst; Deco, Edmilson (Iniesta, h-t), Van Bommel (Larsson, 61); Giuly, Eto'o, Ronaldinho. Substitutes not used: Jorquera (gk), Motta, Xavi, Sylvinho.
Referee: T Hauge (Norway).
Man for man marking Who the star players were at the Stade de France
* JENS LEHMANN
Handled well for 17 minutes, then a rush of blood - or self-sacrifice - led to red card after hauling down Eto'o. 3/10
* EMMANUEL EBOUE
Booked for a wild challenge. Won dubious free-kick for goal. Handled Ronaldinho well. 6
* KOLO TOURE
Strong and committed as Arsenal went under seige, but lost Eto'o for his goal. 6
* SOL CAMPBELL
Glory beckoned after a season of woe with goal. Rustiness showed when turned by Eto'o. 6
* ASHLEY COLE
Played Eto'o onside for dismissal. Otherwise strong and committed in what may be farewell. 5
* ALEXANDER HLEB
Worked hard and showed skill, but wasted good opportunity to settle it. Withdrawn. 6
* FREDDIE LJUNGBERG
Worked hard, in defence and attack, without reward. Fouled on a regular basis. 7
* GILBERTO SILVA
Mopped up in front of the defence for so long. Outmanouvered in the end. 7
* CESC FABREGAS
Failed to make impact he did in Madrid. Will benefit from the experience. Withdrawn. 4
* ROBERT PIRES
Sad farewell to Gunners. Chosen for big game experience, but sacrificed after Lehmann's dismissal. 4
* THIERRY HENRY
Isolated, but disappointing. Missed chances, early and late, to settle the tie. 6
* MANUEL ALMUNIA
(for Pires, 20) Superb saves. May have done better for both goals. 6
* MATHIEU FLAMINI
(for Fabregas, 74) Brought on to close the game down but soon lost Belletti for winner. 4
* JOSE REYES
(for Hleb, 85) Came on too late to change anything.
* VICTOR VALDES
Trio of early saves from Henry and a smart one from Ljungberg. No chance for goal. 8/10
* PRESAS OLEGUER
Got forward regularly, but to little effect. Lost Campbell for goal. Booked and withdrawn. 2
* RAFAEL MARQUEZ
Spent much of the game as a spectator. Skinned once by Henry, but generally solid. 6
* CARLES PUYOL
Found out that heart is not enough at this level, but unlucky to concede foul which led to goal. 5
* GIOVANNI VAN BRONCKHORST
Tidy defensively, but anonymous in attack. On this display Arsenal were right to let him go. 5
Solid enough, but suffered heavy fall and replaced at the interval as Barca looked to attack. 5
One sumptuous ball to Giuly. Kept prompting, but usually squeezed out by Gilberto. 6
* MARK VAN BOMMEL
Prepared to put a foot in often enough, but contributed nothing offensively. Withdrawn. 4
* LUDOVIC GIULY
A threat with his clever movement. Thought he had scored after Lehmann foul. 6
* SAMUEL ETO'O
Stole show and deserved goal. Also prompted Lehmann's exit and struck post via Almunia. 9
Released Eto'o for dismissal, but disappointed despite nice touches. Slim impact given possession. 6
* ANDRES INIESTA (for Edmilson, h/t) Should have started. Soon stretched Arsenal and tested Almunia. 7
* HENRIK LARSSON (for Van Bommel, 60) Critical change. Neat touch to release Eto'o for goal, then set up Belletti. 8
* JULIANO BELLETTI (Oleguer, 70) Super sub. Sent on to pep up the attack, he scores the winner. 7
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