CHAMPIONS LEAGUE - Spiked Gunners, loyal fusilier.jpg

CHAMPIONS LEAGUE – Spiked Gunners, loyal fusilier

ARSENAL’S BID to succeed in their first Champions League final, and become the first English club south of Birmingham to lift the European Cup, faltered as early as the 20th minute in Paris last Wednesday night. Perhaps the decisive moment of the match, against rivals Barcelona, was preceded by a superb through ball from Ronaldinho, which saw Samuel Eto’o attempt to hurdle the despairing Jens Lehmann.

The German keeper hauled the striker to the ground as Ludovic Giuly buried the loose ball in the Arsenal net. Instead of playing advantage, allowing the goal to stand while booking the unfortunate Lehmann, the Norwegian referee Terje Hauge, issued a red card and awarded a free kick, robbing Barcelona of a perfectly good goal and reducing Arsenal to 10 men for the remainder of the game.

When the game continued, Robert Pires had been sacrificed for reserve keeper Manuel Almunia, and the mood had changed. The sense of joy had given way to steely determination, Thierry Henry leading Arsene Wenger’s outnumbered troops into the fray. Fittingly, it was the French striker’s 37th minute free kick, which allowed Sol Campbell to head the Gunners into the lead, an advantage that was held until the final 15 minutes. Then, rain pouring down, Arsenal’s superhuman efforts began to fade. Substitute Henrik Larsson set up Eto’o and Juliano Belletti for two quick near post finishes and the dream was over. Barcelona were crowned champions of Europe for only the second time in their history, but the early calamity had left a shadow hanging over what should have been a brilliant spectacle.

The aftermath provided some consolation for the beaten, but not bowed, North Londoners. A thunderous-looking Thierry Henry voiced fierce criticism, not only of the referee’s performance, but also of that of the opposition. Using words such as “old women” to describe what many believed to be his future team-mates, the outstanding player of the season all but scotched rumours that he was about to move to Spain. 48 hours later, the news broke that Barcelona had lost out, despite two world record 70 euro million bids, Henry declared that his heart belonged to Arsenal and signed a new four year contract. The Paris cloud proved to have a very thick silver lining.