The Stade de France has a unique history with silverware. France’s national stadium has seen plenty of great moments and is a place that brings back mixed emotions for many. For some, the venue has glittering memories, having been able to see their side succeed in a final, while for others, there may be despair and regret, with the pain of losing a final looming large.
One such final that was held there was the ultimate match of the 2005/06 Champions League season when La Liga champions Barcelona squared off against Arsène Wenger’s Arsenal side, who were set to undergo a period of great change. The two clubs were going through a significant period in their history. Barcelona were often considered the best team in the world at the time, with a star cast including Ronaldinho, Samuel Eto’o and Deco amongst others. Arsenal, meanwhile, were a young team, featuring a mix of the heroes that went a whole league season unbeaten two years ago and a few youthful names who were set to be permanent figures over the next few years.
Coming into the clash, both sides were on an excellent run in Europe. The Gunners were unbeatable at the back, conceding just twice in their 12 games in the run to the final, including matches against Juventus, Real Madrid and Ajax. Indeed, it was the Amsterdammers who last scored against them – a record ten matches and eight months prior to the final. With a defence marshalled by Sol Campbell and an emerging Kolo Touré, they would prove to be a stern outfit at the back.
Also in the side were prospects like Ashley Cole and ex-Barcelona man, Cesc Fàbregas. There was firm belief that a win here would kickstart a glorious era for the London club. With a move to a bigger, more modern Emirates Stadium coming in the next few months, this was a period that looked forward to the future while keeping alive the traditions that made them so successful in the past.
Barcelona were on a similar run, with their defence proving difficult to beat. It was their midfield, however, that was vastly underrated. Coach Frank Rijkaard used his players’ qualities well, opting for the trio of the inventive Deco and two destroyers in the form of Mark van Bommel and Edmílson, whose defensive prowess could often break up technical attacking outfits and help the Catalans on the counter-attack. On paper, this was to be a clash that would see two similar ideologies pitted against each other, but when given greater attention, these ideologies were smartly tweaked to suit either side.
Unlike 1992, the last time Barcelona won the European Cup, this was a side that wasn’t widely linked to its famed La Masia academy. Johan Cruyff’s team 14 years prior included several players who graduated from the famous institution, but in Rijkaard’s team, there were just four who were in the 18-man squad for the final: Xavi, Andrés Iniesta, Oleguer and captain Carles Puyol. These philosophies were still a huge part of the football club, but this was now Rijkaard’s altered version.
The final itself was a meeting of all-stars. Great players of the era like Eto’o, Ronaldinho, Thierry Henry, Jens Lehmann and Gilberto Silva would be coming up against each other, but there was one name that was certain to miss out. Lionel Messi, who had just enjoyed a breakthrough campaign with the Barcelona first team, would miss the final due to an injury picked up in the semi-final. Unlike him, Xavi, who had been injured for much of the season, was fit enough to make the bench for the final. On the grandest night in the European football calendar, it was only right that a collection of the world’s elite participated on the grand turf of the Stade de France.
Under the bright lights and nearly 80,000 at the stadium, the clash was fast-paced right from the off. The Gunners, who were astonishingly the first club from London to participate in a European Cup final, had an early chance to take the lead, but that went to waste after the ever-dependable Henry’s shot went straight at Victor Valdes. Emmanuel Eboué’s cross from the right side was collected and taken forward well by the French forward, but with little space and just the goalkeeper to beat, Henry couldn’t convert. A few moments later, he took a shot from outside the box and that too was well-saved by Valdes. The star man was showing early signs of eagerness.
The crucial turning point of the match came just a few moments later. Ronaldinho, ever the showman, danced through a few Arsenal defenders and played a ball through to Eto’o, who had just the goalkeeper to beat. Rushing forward, Lehmann would grab on to the Cameroonian’s ankle, tripping him and in the process, getting himself sent off after just 18 minutes of play. He became the first player to be sent off in Europe’s biggest club match.
It would spell the end of his and Robert Pires’ night, who was taken off for Manuel Almunia. A match that was going by rapidly had taken a massive twist, and now the dream of two players would be brought to an abrupt end. Almunia, the second-choice goalkeeper who had played just 28 times for Arsenal over two years and just five times in the Champions League, now had a huge responsibility on his shoulders, while they were also a man short in attack.
Barcelona would take command after struggling for much of the opening 20 minutes but were unable to create a clear goalscoring opportunity. Instead, there was another unexpected twist in the tale. Eboué, the flamboyant full-back would go forward on a trademark surge and with Puyol running at him, he would comically deceive the referee and win a free-kick from a good crossing position. Henry took it, and it was Sol Campbell who rose highest to head it past Valdes. Against the run of play, Arsenal took the lead and were now hell-bent on defending it.
Soon after, a chance fell to Eto’o, but his shot was saved and deflected onto the woodwork. Barcelona, strong favourites coming into the clash and with a feeling of enhancement due to their numerical advantage, were down.
In the second-half, Rijkaard made changes to change his team’s dynamic and take advantage of Arsenal’s deficiency. He ditched the defensive game-plan by bringing in more attack-minded midfielders, and that would give Barcelona control. Deco’s artistry was now met with the flair of a young Iniesta, while they were joined by the creativity of Henrik Larsson as Edmílson and Van Bommel were sacrificed.
The Blaugrana had a few chances in the second period, but nothing of note. Instead, it was Arsenal and once again, Henry, who would have the best shot at doubling the Gunners’ lead. The Frenchman was played through Freddie Ljungberg and with Rafael Márquez chasing him down, he had just Valdes to beat, but scuffed his shot low into the goalkeeper’s hands. It was a golden opportunity to put the game to bed with just over 20 minutes left to play. A traditionally composed figure who was electric that night had twice failed to bring Arsenal closer to their holy grail.
Soon after, Rijkaard would have his final throw of the dice, replacing right-back Oleguer with the more attack-minded Brazilian, Juliano Belletti as the final whistle loomed large. Although it was seen as a like-for-like substitution in terms of position, Belletti would play more as an auxiliary winger looking to cause havoc down the flank.
Rijkaard and Barcelona hit the jackpot with these changes. Five minutes after Belletti’s introduction, it was a combination of the first two substitutes that contributed to the equalizer. Iniesta played a pass through to Larsson, whose deft touch fell to Eto’o as the Cameroonian calmly took a touch and scored on Alumnia’s near-post. There were huge calls for offside, and there still is debate about this goal, but it stood, and it was a wonderful, free-flowing team move that added more drama to this eccentric final.
With the Barcelona fans setting off a few flairs in celebration, the momentum was with them as Saint-Denis was now given a Camp Nou-esque atmosphere. Arsenal struggled to settle into the fast pace and just moments after the equalizer came the coup de grâce. Larsson was involved again, playing a pass through to a charging Belletti, who, from a relatively awkward angle, squeezed the ball through Almunia’s legs as it went into the goal, once again on his near post to give Barcelona the lead.
The full-back would storm away in celebration, tearily looking up at the heavens with disbelief, but this was all very real. An hour ago, he would never have expected to be on the pitch, let alone score what may have just been the winner, but here he was. Arsenal were shell-shocked. Having been so close to pulling off a miraculous victory, they now needed a miracle themselves to salvage something with just over ten minutes left to play.
The Catalans kept control for the rest of the tie, even carving out a goalscoring chance themselves, as the Gunners tried to put on a final flurry. In the end, the famous big ears would return to Barcelona, 14 years after Johan Cruyff’s ‘Dream Team’ won it in London. They were expectedly jubilant, and were now officially the best club side in world football. Just years after being in disarray following Louis van Gaal’s disastrous second tenure, they strived for change and now in 2006, reached the pinnacle of club football.
In the autopsy of Arsenal’s defeat, several questions were raised. Why was Thierry Henry, a man buoyed by the big occasion and his home crowd and a forward that never forgets where the goal is, so out-of-touch in arguably the most important match of his Arsenal career? Would things have been different had Jens Lehmann stayed on the pitch instead of having to watch Manuel Almunia concede two goals on his near post on a television in the dressing room? Could the referees have done better to prevent the number of frequent and rash tackles, specifically those performed on Arsenal’s captain?
Ronaldinho and Samuel Eto’o were widely praised, but there was one man who also received adulation. Henrik Larsson, in his final game for the club, put on a 30-minute cameo for the ages. The opposing captain, Henry, was in awe as well: “People always talk about Ronaldinho and everything, but I didn’t see him today – I saw Henrik Larsson. Two times he came on – he changed the game, that is what killed the game – sometimes you talk about Ronaldinho and Eto’o and people like that, you need to talk about the proper footballer who made the difference and that was Henrik Larsson tonight”
That night in Saint-Denis would prove to be Arsenal and Arsène Wenger’s last chance at winning the European Cup. Barcelona, meanwhile, would start their own love affair with the competition, going on to win three more titles within the next decade. There was drama, there was controversy and there were several game-changing moments that made it one of the most gripping Champions League finals in recent memory. The Stade de France, known for all the glitter and glamour, played host to an incredible final once again.
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