This is a Champions League week and Arsenal are now playing Thursday nights in the Europa League.
Do you remember when Arsenal used to win Champions League games?
When they got to the Final in Paris?
Those were the days.
The turning point came in Madrid. Underdogs Arsenal had reached two quarter-finals, Real Madrid were nine times European Champions, and Wenger went 4-5-1 and asked for big performances from his senior players. Two minutes into the second half, Thierry Henry shrugged off the tubby Ronaldo in centrefield and suddenly waltzed beyond Meija and Guti and hit a shot past Casillas before Ramos could reach him. A superb slalom, a priceless away goal, a huge moment in what had so far been Wenger’s worst season at Arsenal. That goal gave them belief, purpose, a clear direction for the rest of the season.
In the second leg, Ronaldo broke into a jog twice, fearless Freddie charged down a Roberto Carlos free-kick, and Henry played with more physical commitment than we had ever seen from him. A goalless draw was possibly the best 0-0 in Arsenal’s history.
In the quarter-final, Juventus brought Patrick Vieira back to Highbury and when he made a great tackle on Reyes, winning the ball cleanly and cruising away with it as only Vieira could, the big man rolled back the years. But a minute later Pires, of all people, won the ball from Vieira on the halfway line and found Henry, who passed to Fabregas, who hit a shot through Thuram’s legs into the bottom corner of Buffon’s net. Then Hleb released Fabregas to set up Henry for 2-0.
UEFA’s stats said Reyes was the most-fouled player in the Champions League and when Vieira clattered Reyes he put himself out of the second leg. Cannavaro and Zebina got red cards which were worth a third goal. The best old men in Italy had never looked like beating Wenger’s kids and Fabregas, 18, was making the 4-5-1 system tick. A week later, Senderos was superb in a Turin siege which ended 0-0 after Nedved was sent off for a shocking tackle on Eboue.
The first leg of semi-final is always tight and Villarreal’s normal style stifled Arsenal because their seven defenders had such tactical discipline : they sat deep, stayed narrow, cut out short passes, and seemed well capable of containment until Hleb’s low cross was stabbed in by Toure.
The return in Villarreal was a serious test and they survived the first half without stringing three passes together. Wherever jittery Arsenal had three players, Villarreal had four, and as the pressure mounted in the 88th minute, sub Gael Clichy collided with Jose Mari and the referee gave a penalty and Riquelme placed the ball on the spot. If he scored it was extra time. But Lehmann saved the penalty. Flamini’s hamstring was only a pull, not a tear, and the final was 22 days away. If Cole and Flamini were both fit, would Wenger pick the traitor?
On May 1 the game at Sunderland was a 3-0 walkover typical of a schizophrenic Premiership season which had been mostly walkovers or games where the attack had failed.
Ljungberg’s fine goal at Manchester City was only half a yard offside, City equalised from a corner, and in the second half we saw the best football Arsenal had played for a while, although Hleb was average because Fabregas did not start. Eboue cut the ball back for Reyes to make it 2-1, and Henry’s cruising run, backing Richard Dunne into the box, allowed him to pass to Reyes, whose curving shot killed the game at 3-1. Ashley Cole had not started in seven months but played well in the last half hour. Wenger had used Clichy, Cygan, Lauren, Sebastian Larsson and even Senderos at left back before Flamini made the position his own. The last year at Highbury was the season of seven left backs.
Their 2004 style of the Invincibles had been dynamic because Vieira and Bergkamp were dynamic. As the personnel had evolved, their style had now become completely Thierryfied – the team now followed Thierry’s moods and waited for his mood to change. As he felt his way into a game, so the team felt its way into the game with him. If Thierry was rubbish for the first 15, Arsenal created nothing. So the new style was based on a more cagey opening period, the ability to defend a lead, and very fit players who could compete for 94 minutes and score late goals.
The Reyes goals at Manchester City, scored in 77 and 84 minutes, were the 20th and 21st goals Arsenal had scored in the last 15 minutes of games.
Spurs boss Martin Jol’s nightmare was that Arsenal might win the Champions League. If that happened, and his team finished fourth above Arsenal in fifth, they would be relegated to the UEFA Cup. Spurs were the visitors in the penultimate home game at Highbury and were duly beaten 2-1 after a spat between the managers.
Before the emotionally-charged goodbye game at Highbury, Wenger admitted: “I would never have thought when I arrived nine and a half years ago I would close Highbury. I didn’t even think I would stay as long as I have and didn’t think we’d need a new stadium. My best memory of Highbury is the first Championship we won against Everton in 1998. But I would like to remember all the highlights, those moments when there was a same wavelength between us and the fans when we played fantastic football.”
Henry scored a hat-trick as Arsenal beat Wigan 4-2 and Don Howe said in the match programme that Fabregas and Flamini were the future, which surprised a few people, since Flamini had played mainly at left back.
The European Cup had been invented by French journalist Gabriel Hanon and the first final was played in Paris in 1956, so UEFA had scheduled the fiftieth final in the same city on May 17, 2006.
For Wenger, Arsenal v Barcelona in the Stade de France was the culmination of a life’s work, the pinnacle of his 22 years as a club manager.
Both teams had won eight and drawn four but Barcelona had more firepower, having scored 22 goals against Arsenal’s 14. So how could Arsenal win ? By keeping another clean sheet. Jens Lehmann had been their best player all season and the finest goalkeeper in the Champions League. Remarkably, Arsenal had kept ten clean sheets in their last ten Champions League games. They had learned how to play without the ball, how to defend a lead.
A master of orchestrating the build-up to a big game, Wenger had ten days to consider his selection and fine-tune his team for the biggest game in Arsenal’s history. A whisper suggested that Rijkaard reckoned Arsenal would sit back and counter-attack.
The line-ups were as follows:
ARSENAL : Lehmann; Eboue, Toure, Campbell, Cole ; Pires, Gilberto, Fabregas, Hleb; Ljungberg, Henry. Subs :Bergkamp, Van Persie, Flamini, Reyes, Senderos, Clichy, Almunia
BARCELONA : Valdes ; Oleguer, Marquez, Puyol, Van Bronckhorst; Deco, Edmilson Van Bommel; Giuly, Eto’o, Ronaldinho. Subs : Larsson, Iniesta, Jorquera, Motta, Xavi, Sylvinho Belletti,
The early exchanges were electric as Henry beat Marquez to create the first chance in the third minute. But his shot hit Valdes and went past the post, and after a short corner, Henry fired a fierce shot that tested Valdes at his near post. Then, in the 18th minute, Gilberto’s sloppy pass hit Hleb on the chest and Samuel Eto’o robbed Hleb and gave the ball to Ronaldinho, whose return pass found Eto’o sprinting beyond a square back four and Lehmann came out of his area and went for the ball with his foot but Eto’o got there first, the keeper’s wrist caught the striker’s ankle, Eto’o fell, and the loose ball went to Giuly, who made it 1-0.
Unfortunately, Norwegian referee Terje Hauge had already blown for the foul. He gave Lehmann a red card and awarded a free-kick, so Almunia, the reserve keeper, came on. Pires was sacrificed because Hleb was seven years younger and Ljungberg could tackle. After that Hauge had a very poor game, giving atrocious decisions against both sides. In 37 minutes, Eboue dived, pretending Puyol had clipped him, and Henry flighted the free-kick perfectly for Sol Campbell to score with a header. Amazingly, the ten men were winning 1-0. Then the explosive Eto’o beat Campbell and saw his shot tipped onto the post by Almunia.
At half-time Iniesta came on for Edmilson and gave Barcelona more zest, Hleb, peripheral so far, produced the pass that would have won the European Cup if Henry had scored in 70 minutes.
With Fabregas on the field, Arsenal had the ball some of the time. When Flamini replaced him, Arsenal did not have the ball at all and Barcelona, having wobbled because they were not creating chances, now introduced classy Swedish veteran Henrik Larsson, a striker, for Mark van Bommel. Hleb had a shot wide, Valdes tipped over a shot from Ljungberg. Then Iniesta passed to Larsson, whose flick played in Eto’o, who lifted his shot over Almunia’s shin at the near post for 1-1. Eboue had switched off and allowed a 31-goal striker to run behind him and score his 32nd goal of the season. To his eternal shame, Eboue did not know Eto’o was there. Then Larsson fed a cute reverse ball into the run of substitute Belletti, who fired a shot which was going wide of the far post. The ball hit Almunia’s leg and went in for 2-1. So that was that.
Arsenal had outplayed Barcelona in the first eighteen minutes, contained them with ten men, taken a surprise lead, and come within fourteen minutes of a truly remarkable victory.
But then Larsson turned the game upside down in four minutes and Almunia conceded two goals that Lehmann would have saved. Most substitutes take at least five minutes to get into a game but Larsson, a special talent, was able to get into the game in a few seconds.
Still, it was Wenger’s finest European campaign by far because he beat the legendary Real Madrid, Fabio Capello’s Juventus and Manuel Pellegrini’s Villarreal to reach the European Cup Final, something no London club had ever done before.
In the first ten minutes Arsenal looked like winning 3-1 because Barcelona could not cope with their pace of passing, which had been tuned up during those ten days of rest, practice and preparation. Losing a man meant Arsenal’s pace dropped to the same level as Barcelona’s pace, and Barca were able to use the extra man to keep the ball and dominate.
Typically, the entire English press failed to report the background to UEFA’s choice of referee.
Lubos Michel was a candidate but the Slovak was still young and had allowed far too much play-acting in the UEFA Cup Final in 2003 when Porto beat Celtic 3-2.
Terje Hauge was not chosen by FIFA for the World Cup, so UEFA gave him their big game as a consolation prize. In 49 previous European Cup Finals, no footballer had been ever been sent off. Was every player a saint in those 49 finals?
By disallowing the Giuly goal, Hauge disallowed the spectacle and showed why FIFA would not touch him for the World Cup. He should have given the goal, booked Lehmann, and overseen a classic between the two most attractive teams in the Champions League.
When he sent off Lehmann he punished everybody: Barcelona had a good goal disallowed, Arsenal lost Lehmann and Pires, and football fans in 200 countries missed the chance to see a Barcelona-Arsenal final, which may never happen again.
The 2006 World Cup was about to start and England coach Sven-Goran Eriksson did not fancy strikers Darren Bent or Jermaine Defoe. On the Friday before Sven was due to name his 23, Wenger gave his usual briefing to the Sunday papers. He summarised Eriksson’s striking options and told four Sunday reporters that he should take Theo Walcott to Germany, even though he had never started a game for Arsenal. The journalists were astounded. Rob Hughes said, “Are you serious? I’m going to write this.”
Wenger said that just because Walcott could not get into the Arsenal team did not mean he should not play for England, since Arsenal were a better team than England. Only Rob Hughes wrote the story. When Eriksson read The Sunday Times he sent his assistant Tord Grip to assess Walcott in training on Monday morning and Grip then phoned Eriksson, who announced Walcott’s name among the 23 for Germany, causing a sensation.
Apparently, England’s senior players refused to accept a “schoolboy” and Sven was too weak to stand up to them. The Premiership’s finest proved to be as spineless as the Swede who was babysitting them. They had no bottle, no moral strength, and did not play. Sven’s favourite, Beckham, could not run any more, and he kept Gerrard and Lampard together for five games, ignoring the evidence of his own eyes. It was the precisely the farce that some of us had predicted.
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