Barça comeback denies ArsenalWednesday, 17 May 2006
by Andrew Haslamfrom Stade de France
The UEFA Champions League final between FC Barcelona and Arsenal FC promised to be an entertaining epic, but instead Paris witnessed a masterclass of a different kind. Ten-man Arsenal took a first-half lead against the odds and their fabled defence protected it for almost 40 minutes, only for Barça to get their reward for a patient display with two goals in the last 15 minutes, from Samuel Eto'o and Juliano Belletti, to give the Spanish side the trophy for the second time.
Both teams started in positive mood but the pattern changed completely in the 18th minute after Arsenal goalkeeper Jens Lehmann brought down Eto'o to become the first player to be sent off in a European Champion Clubs' Cup final. Incredibly Sol Campbell headed the English side in front in the 37th minute and Arsenal had a number of opportunities to extend their advantage but were unable to take them. Then their tired legs finally gave way in the concluding quarter of an hour. Barça substitute Henrik Larsson was the catalyst, creating goals for Eto'o and Belletti to turn the tie and take the title to Catalonia.
A banner unfurled at the Barcelona end before kick-off read "Más que un club" – more than a club – and the weight of expectation initially seemed to sit heavily on the shoulders of the on-pitch representatives of the Catalan giants, who might have fallen behind twice inside the opening five minutes. Emmanuel Eboué galloped down the Arsenal right in the third minute and his cross was allowed to travel as far as the dangerous Thierry Henry, who span away from his marker but Víctor Valdés rushed off his line to block the prodded shot with his legs. From the resulting corner the Barcelona goalkeeper was again forced into action by the Arsenal captain, palming away his effort from outside the area at the near post.
Having survived those early scares with their goal intact, Barça set about ending Arsenal's ten-game run without conceding, Ludovic Giuly stinging Lehmann's palms with an angled attempt before Ronaldinho curled a long-range free-kick past the post and Deco unleashed a rasping strike straight at the Arsenal keeper. His last contribution proved his most telling, however, as Ronaldinho split the Gunners' defence in the 18th minute with a pass that sent Eto'o in on goal, only for the Cameroonian to be felled on the edge of the area by Lehmann. The German was promptly red-carded, forcing Arsène Wenger to replace midfielder Robert Pirès with Lehmann's deputy Manuel Almunia, although Arsenal escaped further punishment when Ronaldinho bent the ensuing set-piece wide.
Unsurprisingly, the Blaugrana enjoyed the majority of the possession thereafter and pressed their opponents back although without seriously threatening their defence again. When a goal did arrive, it came unexpectedly at the other end as Eboué made more ground down the right and drew a foul from Carles Puyol. Henry swung the free-kick into the goalmouth and Campbell rose highest to power a header past Valdés. Falling behind seemed to jolt Barça into a more direct course of action and Ronaldinho and Eto'o might have combined to restore parity before the interval, the Brazilian rolling a pass into his strike partner who turned away from his marker only for his shot to be pushed on to the upright by Almunia.
Barça began the second period in similarly dominant mood and both Deco and half-time substitute Andrés Iniesta tested Almunia from distance but on each occasion the Spaniard was equal to the task. He needed Kolo Touré's assistance to clear a Ronaldinho cross from danger, although when the Brazilian scuffed an attempt wide when in space in the Arsenal area it appeared to encapsulate Catalan frustration. Their situation might have worsened twice in quick succession just past the hour, Aleksandr Hleb pulling an effort past the near post after a swift Arsenal counterattack before Valdés was required to touch over Fredrik Ljungberg's shot from the narrowest of angles.
Arsenal squandered an even better opening moments later as Henry broke clear only to fire straight at the Barcelona custodian. Fourteen minutes from time the Londoners were made to pay for that profligacy as Larsson - on his farewell appearance before returning to his native Sweden - undid the Arsenal back line and Eto'o made no mistake, prodding past Almunia at the near post. The goal visibly lifted Barça and nine minutes from time they snatched a decisive second with Larsson again instrumental, playing a clever reverse ball for another substitute, Belletti, to drill in from an acute angle and send thousands of Catalan fans into raptures.
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