On this day in 2006, Arsenal came within 14 minutes of winning the Champions League trophy.
Read Layth Yousif's account of that fateful match Fourteen minutes in May - Heartbreak on a Paris night taken from his book Arsene Wenger: 50 Defining Fixtures, when he takes us back to a time when Arsenal could have sealed Eternal Glory...
Arsene Wenger was in playful mood when he had the honour of leading the first London team to reach the Champions League final in the build-up to the 50thshowpiece final.
Having endured a difficult season his team managed to clinch fourth place after Highbury’s memorable final salute against Wigan.
Wenger, joshing with the world’s reporters in the week before the eagerly-awaited clash with Barcelona in Paris pointedly referenced the fact people outside the club had thought he was ‘crazy’ when he claimed Arsenal could win the Champions League final.
In what would be Arsenal’s sixth European final, the mighty Barca stood in their way. Yet the team had not conceded a goal for an incredible ten Champions League matches knocking out Real Madrid and Juventus in the process.
Surely his Arsenal side didn't stand a chance of liftting the biggest trophy of all...did they?
Line-ups: 2006 Champions League final
Barcelona: Valdes; Oleguer, Edmilson, van Bronkhorst, Puyol, Marquez, Giuly, Van Bommel, Deco, Eto’o, Ronaldinho.
Substitutes: Larsson for Van Bommel; Bellotti for Oleguer.
Not used: Jorquera, Motta, Xavi, Sylvinho
Arsenal: Lehmann; Eboue, Toure, Campbell, Cole: Hleb, Gilberto, Fabregas, Pires: Ljungberg, Henry.
Substitutes: Almunia for Pires, Flamini for Fabregas, Reyes for Hleb.
Not used: Bergkamp, Van Persie, Senderos and Clichy
Referee: Terje Hauge (Norway)
Arsenal’s odyesey to the 2006 Champions League final was a story of superb defending, youthful innocence, dramatic bravery, cool temperaments, glorious attacking football and superb goals. These qualities were all shown in a vivid performance on an extraordinary Paris spring evening.
Unfortunately at the Stade de France on May 17 Wenger’s ten-man team – who performed heroics with the jug-eared trophy in sight, cruelly met their match in a formidable Barcelona comeback.
Yet Arsenal could be immensely proud of their efforts, having played a man short for nearly an hour after Jens Lehmann was sent off in a pivotal moment which is still talked about today.
The moment which changed the game and arguably Arsenal history came when the talented Brazilian Ronaldinho sent Eto’o through with a clever ball against a Gunners backline a tad too square. The Cameroon international ran on, skipping past Lehmann, only to see his trailing leg taken by the German keeper. The ball squirmed into Giuly’s path, who slotted home into the gaping net.
Amid the mayhem and confusion in the immediate aftermath, referee Terje Hauge – who was later to be hounded out of football following a controversial decision in favour of Barcelona at Stamford Bridge in a Champions League game against Chelsea – had blown for the initial foul by Lehmann.
Signaling play to be brought back for a free-kick right on the edge of the area, he also sent Lehmann off for a professional foul. However disappointing the moment was, it proved to be the correct decision and many Arsenal supporters knew it in their hearts.
Heartbreak on a Paris night
It did not make the incident any easier to deal with as Gooners watched aghast from behind the goal in the packed stadium and around the globe.
Lehmann, never a man to hide his emotions on the pitch held his head in his hands – as did many in the ground – as he left the field, the first player to be sent off in such a final, conceding afterwards that the referee could have given advantage to Barcelona ‘but he had to make a very quick decision.’
It was a painful moment, compounded by the fact the German had contributed so much to the club’s run to the Champions League final. Another Gunner who did was Manuel Almunia, who came on for the unlucky Robert Pires, sadly resulting in the exciting winger’s final game in an Arsenal shirt. His service deserved better but Wenger never hid from the decision – nor his insistence that football can be a cruel game.
Lehmann's red card was to be a defining moment
But first Arsenal showed their undoubted mettle, refusing the expulsion to knock them off their stride. Emmanuel Eboue galloped down Barca’s left flank, ending only in an embarrassing dive after a challenge by Puyol. Yet the referee failed to spot it and awarded a free kick as the feeling persisted that the football gods had been annoyed by Carlos Puyol’s unseemly desperation to get Lehmann sent off and deigned to make amends somewhat.
Whatever the reason, Thierry Henry, quick to sense the danger area, fired in the kick that saw Sol Campbell ghost in ahead of the fierce Catalan nationalist Oleguer to skim a powerful header past Victor Valdes at the far post.
The 21,000 Arsenal supporters in the gorund mostly massed behind the goal could barely believe their beloved club was ahead in the world’s biggest club match – and with ten men to boot.
Supporters attempts to gain entry
Stories abounded prior to kick-off of increasingly desperate attempts to gain entry. One of the best was a Welsh Gooner who bought a ticket from a dubious source for £500 only to find himself sitting next to Pierre van Hooijdonk and a free bar – to which he helped avail himself with relish throughout the game.
Yet, as Campbell said ruefully in an interview with me for the Gooner and Evening Standard newspaper years later: “I would have happily given up the goal to someone else if it meant we could have won 1-0.”
A hard rain's gonna fall...
Barcelona attacked as relentlessly as the Parisian rain fell on a soaking night. What also fell was Arsenal’s bid for an 11thsuccessive clean sheet – and the chance of eternal, glory.
As the game ticked down late into the second half Barca boss Frank Rijkaard’s inspired substitutions in bringing first Henrik Larrson, then Juliano Belletti, into the fray, changed the game, leaving the question: Have two changes ever made more of an impact in a Champions League final?
Yet, it was a chance moments before, with the score still One-Nil-To-The-Arsenal, that had many fans and players wondering what might have been – and still does.
Henry scampered onto Hleb’s through ball only for him to produce a tame shot that Valdes gratefully pounced on. It was another pivotal moment in a match of many. Soon after, Larsson’s first touch cut the Gunners wide open for Eto’o to slam past Almunia at his near post on 76 minutes. It was the equalizer and the first goal Wenger’s side had conceded in nearly 1,000 minutes of Champions League football.
Reeling from such a blow and of playing such a high tempo game with ten men for such a long period of time, Arsenal succumbed to the killer blow of a second goal – from Barca’s second substitute. Larrson, was once again the creator, this time providing fellow replacement Belletti with the chance to fire a low shot in off Almunia to leave many Gooners in tears.
Arsenal legend and former defensive icon Lee Dixon said after the match: “It seemed to be Wenger’s destiny to go and win the trophy this year, but it wasn’t to be. But he’s got to be so proud of his team tonight. They’ve been heroic, all of them and the fact that they’ve had 10 men, they should be very proud of themselves.”
Wenger added afterwards: “The referee made a big mistake at a crucial moment. Their first goal was offside. The way we lost is very difficult to take because we played fantastically – like we have throughout the whole European season. But in the final, people only remember the team that has won.”
The dream was over. But what a journey it was.
This article is dedicated to Susan Ryan. A good friend, loyal Arsenal supporter and season ticket holder who was with me and many others in Paris who sadly left us last May. Always remembered. Never forgotten. RIP
Layth’s note on the match. I’d been at the majority of games home and away during that run including the final in Paris and both legs of the Real Madrid and Juventus ties to name but a few and was utterly convinced 2006 was going to be our year after falling short in 2004. I still haven’t watched the video of the final against Barcelona. I doubt I ever will…