Barcelona 2 – 1 Arsenal
0 – 1 Campbell (37)
1 – 1 Eto’o (76)
2 – 1 Belletti (81)
Gutted. Absolutely f****** gutted.
I cannot sum up the feelings more than that. To have been so near to Europe’s top prize and to be denied in the last fifteen minutes, after an hour of probably the hardest work that the team had put in all season. The match as a contest appeared to end on eighteen minutes when Jens Lehmann became the first player to be sent off in a European Cup Final but this team continued to exceed expectations by regrouping, adjusting well to their circumstance, taking the lead, being the more threatening of the two teams, only to be undone at the end by fatigue and sheer volume of possession. It will remain an evening of what-if’s and maybe’s, what would haves, could haves and should haves. What if the referee had played the advantage and let Giuly’s goal stand, what would have happened if The Gunners had fielded a full quota of eleven players for ninety minutes, could the referee have been more inept if he had tried and Thierry Henry should have scored after three minutes and sixty-ish minutes. What was proven this evening was that this Arsenal side, if they stay together, can perform to the highest level.
The passage of play that led to Lehmann’s dismissal was the first real chance that Barcelona had carved, Lehmann’s save from Giuly minutes earlier was the result of a shot from such a tight angle that it was a one in a thousand chance of hitting the back of the net. There are no arguments with the punishment meted out to the German; it was a blatantly professional foul, in isolation there is no doubt the referee was correct in that respect. Should he have played the advantage to allow Giuly to score? Absolutely. The ball entered the net less than five seconds after the foul so the Norwegian official blew too quickly. Could he have played the advantage, allowed the goal and then sent Lehmann off? Absolutely. Whatever he chose, the referee would have faced criticism. Had this been the only mistake he made then it would have been a media story for a day. As it is, the match and the occasion were too big for him, with both sides suffering at some point in the match although Arsenal appeared to suffer more – why Marques, Puyol, van Bommel and Oleguer remained on the pitch is a mystery, each guilty of at least four yellow card offences. Indeed, when Oleguer was eventually booked, the referee made it plain that there were three previous bad tackles. Perhaps UEFA switched the wrong official prior to kick-off. One of Sky’s commentary team observed that the referee was so poor due to the standard of officiating in the Norwegian League and the substandard level of play. Possibly but there have been decent Scandanavian officials before and will be in the future no doubt. What is evident is that UEFA’s Refereeing Committee needs to take a step back and re-assess how they appoint their officials. The match last night was an example of a man not being able to keep up with the play sufficiently. Perhaps it is time for them to appoint officials based on ability not on politics.
And what of the much vaunted Barcelona team. Personally, I thought they were poor on the whole. Ronaldinho’s big stage left him struck down with nerves. Playing 11 v 10 should have given him the space to exploit and drive his teammates on. He failed to do that. In the end the difference was Henrik Larsson’s introduction, effectively making their formation 4 – 2 – 4, with each having licence to roam. The Swede popped up on the left for the equaliser, his pass took out Eboue to leave Eto’o whilst the winner came from Larsson’s pass on the right to Belletti that split the defence and midfield.
Once the dust has settled on this, Henry will announce his future, stating last night that he would now think about it. Post match comments accusing the Barcelona players of diving like women and being disparaging about Ronaldinho and Eto’o from the Arsenal Captain will make it interesting should he decide to go to the Camp Nou in the summer. I do not know what Eto’o said to him after the game but a look of dejection turned to fury on screen. Having been so close to winning the trophy, does he consider this to be unfinished business with the club? Or has the team come as far as it can in his eyes? Will he join Pires in La Liga next season? Not sure on that. I think he will leave but whether Barcelona will be his final destination is not as clear cut as it once was. Should Shevchenko leave for Stamford Bridge, a trip to Serie A is not out of the question as he may feel he has a point to prove to the Italians.