18 May 2006

Barcelona 2-1 Arsenal

A crushing disappointment for the Gunners.

Before I get started though, congratulations to Barcelona. Despite all the drama from yesterday, the reason they won was because they were the better team. They've marched through the Champions' League like a team of destiny, and despite the man advantage they had to fight hard to wring a win out of the game yesterday. I tip my cap to them, they are a worthy winner.

For Arsenal, I can't help but be gutted. The match played out like so many of our earlier Champions' League ties: we built early pressure, took a crucial lead midway through the first half, then hung on for dear life. Only this time, Barcelona had an extra man, and that made all the difference.

Having Lehmann sent off at 17' was just too much to overcome. The team fought hard in defiance, and when they took the lead at 37' it was surprising but hard-earned. In the end though it was too big an ask. The Gunners had to withstand almost 80 minutes of assault from perhaps the top team in the world. In the end they held out for 69 before conceding. By then Arsenal were competing on will alone, exhausted from the endless chasing that Barcelona forced them into. The first goal broke their hearts, and the second then seemed enevitable. And so it was.

I don't think anyone can argue that Lehmann didn't deserve the red card. The foul itself was the product of poor defending and one split-second poor decision from Jens. But Lehmann's decisions and aggressiveness have kept us alive all season; let's not forget how crucial he was in getting the Gunners to the finals in the first place. It was a mistake, but with an extra tenth of a second, it's a brilliant play.

Referee Terje Hauge had some leeway on the call and could have made another decision. Had he played advantage, Barcelona would have scored, he could have awarded Jens a yellow, and the match would have been much more exciting. Hauge even said so himself. But he didn't. Other refs, in other games, probably split 50/50 on calling it as Hauge did or as I describe. Wenger and Henry both excorciated Hauge, and in general he had a poor match. His calls were inconsistent and unpredictable, and in several cases clearly wrong. The foul on Eboue that led to the Arsenal goal was debateable at best. The yellow card for Henry was perhaps the most wrong call I've seen all year; not only did Henry get nothing but ball, but he hardly touched the Barca player either. I won't blame Hauge for the result. His calls definitely ruined the aesthetics of the game, turning what should have been a beautiful final into grim trench warfare. But he didn't change the outcome of the match.

I am proud of the team. They fought hard and did everything in their power to hold on to victory. When Barcelona took the lead at 80', it was a sign of their respect that they did nothing other than hold on to the ball for the next ten minutes. I can't even fault Jens too much; as I said, his aggressiveness got us into the final in the first place. There were other mistakes too, but I don't want to dwell on them. Barcelona are a team that are going to expose any hint of weakness they find. Yesterday the Gunners nearly won, despite losing a man, and that should be the legacy of the match.

Arsenal fans will see this match through the lens of what happens in the next few weeks. We already know that Dennis Bergkamp will play no more, and it appears likely that Robert Pires will move to Villareal. There are questions about the future of Sol Campbell and Ashley Cole. And looming largest is the future of Thierry Henry. We could face a future where the heart of the recent Arsenal success have all played their last for the club, and that would forever color our thoughts of 17 May and the Stade du France. Perhaps not all is lost; Campbell and Cole certainly gave classic performances yesterday, and Henry himself offered a subtle hint that he will be back, leading the Gunners onto the pitch at Ashburton Grove.

Time will tell. For now: I congratulate Barcelona and salute a vailant Arsenal performance.

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