Thursday, May 18, 2006

Whistle blower steals space from stars

Champions League final wrap

SO another European season draws to a close and just when you thought last season’s miraculous comeback by Liverpool would be hard to top in the surreal stakes comes another bizarre Champions League final, influenced as much by the man with the whistle as it was by the main attractions, the 22 or so men on the park and their two managers.

While much of the talk in the build up was about the likes of Ronaldinho, Thierry Henry, Deco and Samuel Eto’o, there is little doubt that much of the post match analysis will be about the contribution of Norwegian referee Terje Hauge and particularly the early incident which saw Jens Lehmann red-carded and Barcelona’s Ludovic Giuly denied the advantage of playing on, which would have seen the Catalan’s go one up.

Both teams could feel aggrieved by the referees decision, Barcelona denied the lead by an over-eager official who failed to play advantage, Arsenal reduced to 10 men for 70 or so minutes. Had advantage been granted and the goal been allowed to stand, there is an argument for Lehmann to remain on the pitch, as there was no longer a denial of a goal scoring opportunity.

The pity is that we'll never know whether the Gunners, with a full compliment, would have been good enough to claw their way back from one down. The popular theory in the build up to the game was that the first goal would be crucial, particularly if it came from Barca. Arsenal would be forced to open up - contradictory to the way they've been playing this Champions League campaign - leaving holes for Ronaldinho and Co. to exploit.

While Barca would have felt aggrieved not to have gone one up, their anger would have multiplied a short time later when captain Carles Puyol was adjudged to have fouled Arsenal's effervescent overlapping right back Emmanuel Eboue, resulting in Sol Campbell's opener from a free-kick that should never have been.

Arsenal, for its part, feel they were hard done by in the lead up to Eto'o brilliant equaliser, Arsene Wenger claiming the Cameroon striker was offside when played in by a delightfully weighted Henrik Larsson touch. It was marginal.

While Henry launched into a tirade at the referee shortly after his final whistle, the reality is that Hauge was bad for both sides, and it spoilt what started as a breathtaking encounter that promised to live up to the pre-match hype. First Arsenal's captain should have opened the scoring three minutes in when he reacted quicker than Rafael Marquez to an Eboue cross, only to see Victor Valdes react sharply. Back came Barcelona, spraying balls wide to Eto'o and Ludovic Giuly, both hugging the touchline, left and right respectively.

Frank Rijkaard had sprung a surprise in his starting formation, with Ronaldinho central and Eto'o left. It seemed strange. Perhaps the idea was to stretch the Arsenal defence, creating space in the middle for Ronaldinho to weave his magic. When he had time to turn and look up in the 17th minute, he played Eto'o in with the most sumptuous ball.

We all know what happened next. The send off changed the complexion of the match, forcing Wenger to sacrifice the unlucky Robert Pires for reserve keeper Manuel Almunia, as the Gunners reverted to a 4-4-1. Other than the odd burst forward, such as Eboue's run that led to the opener, Arsenal had little choice but to sit deep, play on the counter and get to the break. With Henry working back to make up for the shortfall in midfield, it was essentially a 4-5-0 for the remainder of the half.

The pattern was set, Barca working over an Arsenal side on the retreat. Intriguing it was, but not the even attacking contest many had hoped for.

At the break it was almost certainly a case of whether the Gunners could hold out or whether Barca had the patience to keep working them over, and take their opportunities when they arrived. Certainly Barca appeared weighed down by the expectation, no surprise given their meagre return from this competition. While he would have been churning inside, no doubt Rijkaard preached calm and the need to 'stick to our convictions'.

Knowing that the control of the match was with his side, he introduced the forward thinking Andres Iniesta for holding midfielder Edmilson and soon after introduced striker Larsson for surprise starter Mark van Bommel. They would prove to be telling moves.

As for Arsenal, Wenger would have known it was impossible to merely defend for the second 45. No doubt he spoke of the need to hold the ball, relieve some of the pressure and get men forward in support of Henry. Freddie Ljungberg responded, bursting forward to give his marker Presas Oleguer all sorts of headaches, creating a shooting opportunity from a tough angle, well saved by Valdes. Oleguer, struggling both in defence and in bringing the ball forward, was sacrificed for the attacking minded Juliano Belletti. It was all or nothing for Barca.

Poised on a knives edge, the next goal would prove decisive. Score and Arsenal might kill off the game, concede and the balance would shift in Barcelona's favour.

Next came a pivotal moment in the game, Henry through on goal thanks to a Puyol slip, only to shoot straight at Valdes. Perhaps his post-match comments were born as much from the frustration of this vital miss as his annoyance with the referee.

With Iniesta pulling the strings and Larsson now offering a target up front, Barcelona kept passing and moving, convinced the opportunities would arise. Ronaldinho was becoming more of an influence, tiring the Gunners defence with his dribbling.

They knocked and knocked and sure enough the door was opened by a sublime Iniesta pass, helped on by Larsson, for Eto’o to find a gap at the near post.

Arsenal’s goal had finally been breached, albeit disputably, after almost 11 games.

Sure enough they didn’t have to wait long – five minutes in fact – to suffer another blow, Belletti combining beautifully with Larsson to deflect a shot off Almunia. The Gunners had nothing left as Barca stroked the ball around, keep ball at its best.

Arsenal had been magnificent but had fallen 15 minutes short against Europe’s finest, so near yet so far. For Barca, the pressure that at one stage looked like weighing them down was finally released and it was time to party.


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