What’s not to love?
In the summer the usually irrelevant Confederations Cup showed off a Brazil who included Ronaldinho, Kaka and spectacular flameout, the temporarily unstoppable forward Adriano all at their peaks, ripping Argentina apart 4-1 in the final. Ronaldinho would continue to roll into the new season, with Barcelona now clearly Europe’s glamour team, Ronaldinho and Eto’o carving everyone up at will and Deco keeping it tidy behind them.
The show was summed up by Barcelona’s visit to Real Madrid, still featuring all the usual but now older galácticos, at the end of 2005. Up 1-0 in the second half, Ronaldinho twice received passes on the halfway line next to the left touchline, and twice jinxed around the Real defenders at incredible speed to score two identical goals, if you can imagine two Maradona-esque dribbles but with the recording set on fast-forward. The second, rounding off a 3-0 win with a few minutes to go, prompted the enemy Madrid crowd to stand up en masse and give Ronaldinho, a Barcelona player, an almost unprecedented standing ovation. At the time he was impossible not to love.
This time Chelsea for all their iron will were not able to match Barcelona. Eto’o scored the killer header in London and Ronaldinho pulled out from his usual human highlight reel a dribble-and-shoot in Barcelona to finish it. Barca against Chelsea even featured a very young Lionel Messi, who was tantalisingly injured for the rest of the season and was never given an extended opportunity to mesh with Ronaldinho. Barca’s journey through the 2006 Champions League was surprisingly low-scoring for such an effervescent team (six goals in six matches from second round to semi-final inclusive) but they found themselves in a changing of the guard semi-final against Milan, who had lost their aura but had worked hard to survive so far, hoping against hope for the chance to atone for 2005.
Ronaldinho in Milan, his back to goal and with a defender on him, twisted to deliver a beautiful through pass to Ludovic Giuly, the ex-Monaco player who had finally found his way to being one of Barcelona’s A-listers. Giuly drilled the goal into the roof of Milan’s net, and Barca were now ‘officially’ the kings. They were unable to increase their lead in Spain (in fact, Milan had a Shevchenko header strangely disallowed) but they had nonetheless won the showdown. Little did we know it, but these were the last moments at the top for both Ronaldinho and Shevchenko.
England represented by… Arsenal??
The English takeover of the Champions League was delayed a year as England’s usual suspects all bit the dust early. The one English team who had never done anything in Europe, however, came fifteen minutes away from winning the 2006 title with a patched-up group of first-year players. Arsenal’s rag-tag defence consisted of right back Emmanuel Eboue, a real find from Cote d’Ivoire in his first year; centre defenders Kolo Toure, also from Cote d’Ivoire, relatively inexperienced but formidable; tall Swiss Philippe Senderos, who would come and go for the Gunners without otherwise making a splash; and French left back Mathieu Flamini, who wasn’t even a defender. Somehow these new players, backed by once fallible, now dominant keeper Jens Lehmann kept ten clean sheets in a row, smashing the existing Champions League record.
The irresistible Bergkamp-Henry tandem, the brains and the legs, had finally been phased out, the Dutchman put out to pasture as Arsenal’s worst domestic season all decade wobbled on. It was the second year in a row that England produced a team like this in the Champions League, terrible at home while miraculously playing with poise and conviction in Europe. In a sense Liverpool and Arsenal were even more illogical successes than Porto and Monaco in 2004, who while unfancied had at least been consistent winning teams all year.
Vieira had shockingly been sold the summer before. Pires would also leave at the end of this year (his last game for Arsenal – the Champions League final – coming to an undeserved premature end) and Henry himself one season after that. For now, Henry was the only constant and the main leader Arsenal had. He often found himself playing alone up front now, for both Arsenal and later in the year France, an exhausting but acceptable state of affairs for a forward who had never gelled with any forward partner except Bergkamp. He was still going strong but had seen both his Arsenal and France seemingly decline around him before both arbitrarily rebounded to challenge for glory in 2006. Henry would score the most famous, awesome goal of both of these challenges.
Vieira had been replaced by Wenger’s new hope, young Spaniard Francesc Fabregas, Cesc, in central midfield. He was about half Vieira’s physical stature, more skilful but less dominant.
As the knockout phase began, Arsenal went to the lair of the now so-called galácticos with most of Europe expecting Real Madrid to dish out a hiding. Instead Arsenal’s kids stayed strong and beat the geriatrics 1-0, Thierry Henry scoring one of his two most iconic goals that year. He gathered the ball near the halfway line, took off zigzagging around multiple Real players and drilled past Iker Casillas with Zidane, Ronaldo and the rest looking on in bemusement.
Arsenal’s conviction in Europe, their unshakeable belief that they really could beat the best, had not been seen before and would not be seen again. That it existed in 2006 is hard to explain. Arsenal held Real 0-0 in an entertaining match at home, then came the visit of Juventus and old boy Vieira. The kids did it again against Europe’s top brass, this match convincing a few that Cesc over Vieira had been the right way to go. The first goal said it all: Pires, still going around for Arsenal, stole the ball from ex-teammate Vieira (“The first tackle of my thirteen-year career,” he joked) and the ball ended up with Cesc who finished past Buffon. In the second half Cesc squared the ball for Henry to pull a nifty rescue trap with the ball slightly behind him and tap into the open goal for 2-0. Again, the return was a straightforward 0-0, experienced Juventus in fact being the team to implode with two red cards.
Arsenal vs. Villarreal was one of the least likely Champions League semi-finals. Villarreal were a provincial team who had been in the Spanish top division for barely a decade, but were consistent performers in Europe in the 2000s, and certain romantics had fallen for their hard-working advancement to Europe’s final four. Arsenal squeezed a 1-0 win and survived a torrid return leg in Spain, ninety minutes of all hands on deck until Villarreal found an injury-time penalty to tie the match and in all likelihood win it in extra time. But Lehmann, putting the seal on his super campaign which would lift him above Kahn in the German pecking order, saved the unpredictable Juan Roman Riquelme’s strike.
What could have been…
“The Game of the Century”, newspapers called the Arsenal vs. Barcelona final, shocked that Europe’s two naive entertainers had both been able to reach the final of a generally defensive competition. There shouldn’t have been a game like it, but it was ruined twenty minutes in. Arsenal, on paper no match for Barcelona, had been the more committed team up until that moment. Henry missed a quick second-minute chance in which the goal suddenly opened for him like the gates of heaven. He hit it at the keeper.
There was the sense that Barcelona could win it any year while for Arsenal, it was today or never. After twenty minutes Lehmann left his area and took down the advancing Eto’o, who had nonetheless flicked it laterally for Giuly to tap into the empty goal. The goal was annulled and Lehmann sent off. Arsenal survived the free kick but were already surely doomed, and Pires was thanked for his long service by being yanked for Keeper B. The game was now finished as a like-versus-like showdown and spectacle, “The Game of the Century” in the toilet with Arsenal facing 70 minutes in the trenches. But one of the faces of Arsenal’s Champions League odyssey, Eboue, won a free kick on an isolated sortie forward that Henry put onto Sol Campbell’s head for 1-0.
Ronaldinho’s through ball had provoked the key moment in the first half but he was curiously ineffective in the second. He would not ever be the same player, but we weren’t to immediately know this. Arsenal dug firm and continued to play the more committed game despite the handicap, long Arsenal servant Ljungberg saved from a tight angle after working himself free, and Henry missed another break into the box with a weak, tired shot to the keeper.
Barcelona brought on talented Swedish forward Henrik Larsson, who should have given his career more of a chance for glory instead of spending a decade at the wasteland that was Celtic. His assists decided the match. If one of Barca’s transcendent stars hadn’t been able to impose himself on the game, the other was still there to save the day. There were less than fifteen minutes left when Eto’o was given a sight at goal by Larsson’s touch and immediately pulled the trigger. Two minutes later a scratchy second goal was scored past Arsenal’s less authoritative backup keeper Almunia – losing Lehmann had been a cruel blow. At that point, a man and goal up, Barcelona simply had to play an aimless keep-away, their usual specialty. Few games have pissed me off as much as this one. It really did turn out to be that day or never.
Barcelona had backed up the vibe of their number one status with the actual trophy to confirm it. They had had played two and a half terrific seasons, but that particular team’s dependence on Ronaldinho would be seen in their immediate decline that paralleled his own. That was a sad event that was swiftly reversed by the great Spanish midfielders Xavi and Andres Iniesta taking over from Ronaldinho in the 2009 team. Those two had not featured strongly in this Barcelona team, as Iniesta was still young and Rijkaard didn’t rate Xavi. Neither had a starting place in the Champions League final and Xavi would not get on at all.