Wednesday, May 17, 2006
A bunch of rambled, congealed thoughts in the afterglow of the Champions League Final:
The game followed the pattern of the first leg of Barca/Chelsea almost perfectly: English side dominates the first few minutes, then Barca get their sea legs and their pressure forces a straight red. Up a man, Barca concede from a wing free kick and then, when it looks like all is lost, Barca equalize, take control of the match, score the go-ahead goal, and then spend the last ten minutes passing the ball around a beaten opponent. I know that Arsenal were tired after having played with ten men for so long, but they showed absolutely no initiative once they fell behind. They were beaten and they knew it. They made no effort to hold the ball when they had their lead and then found it impossible to reassert themselves outside of the back third of the field in the final ten minutes.
Much of the discussion after the game was that Henry and Ronaldinho had relatively subdued games, which is partially true. Henry failed to bury a couple chances (although Valdes deserves a lot of credit for snuffing him out in the 3rd minute). Ronaldinho was woeful on free kicks (including hitting the midsection of an Arsenal player on one occasion), scuffed most of his shots, and turned the ball over too much. That said, Henry set up the Arsenal goal with a great pass from a set piece (Barca's bugaboo against English teams - set pieces - reared its ugly head again) and Ronaldinho freed Eto'o for the breakaway that reduced Arsenal to ten men, so both players showed their utility in setting up opponents.
Arsene Wenger was typically grumpy about the ref, whining about Eto'o's goal (marginally offside, if at all, and an almost impossible call for a lineman since Eto'o was at full speed when the ball was played to him and the Arsenal backline was static). Aside from the fact that his team should have been 1-0 down 18 minutes in and were done a favor by having to go a man down instead, maybe someone should ask him if he noticed that Arsenal's goal came from a dive by Eboue so Arsene can whip out his favorite excuse from the Viera era: "I didn't see the incident." For the record, I like Wenger and I hope that he wins a Champions League at some stage, but he, like most managers, externalizes everything.
After my repeated griping that Henrik Larsson was not a good fit in the Barca attack and should be replaced by Giuly on the right, he played a vital role in both goals. In my defense, Larsson set up the goals in the role that I suggested for him: as a target man up at the point of the spear to either head the ball or hold it up and hit overlapping players. His passing was outstanding. Barca will miss him next year. I feel great for all the players, but a guy like Henrik who has toiled for years and is a hero for two fan bases warms the heart more than most when he dons the winner's medal. That reminds me, I've always wanted to grade players after a game like European newspapers do, so here we go (on a one to eight scale):
Valdes - 8 - Kept the team in it for much of the match, especially on Henry early and then Ljungberg late.
Oleguer - 5 - Beaten like a drum on Arsenal's goal and wasn't as solid defensively as I would have hoped.
Puyol - 7 - Henry beat him a couple times, which is going to happen when you surrender the sort of space that Barca was in the back. He seems to go to ground a lot these days. Still, he cut out a lot and showed himself to be as smart as they come.
Marquez - 6 - Beaten by Henry in the third minute and bailed out by Valdes. He got better as the game went on, but then faked an injury at the end when there was no need to do so.
Gio - 6 - Arsenal's two best chances in the first half came down his side, but he wasn't that bad and made some impression in the offensive half.
Edmilson - 7 - Gave Arsenal nothing through the middle and distributed well. He's a major change for this side.
Van Bommel - 6 - Relatively anonymous until he was pulled off.
Deco - 6 - Didn't seem to make a huge impact, although he did get into good shooting position once or twice.
Ronaldinho - 7 - Even in a bad game for him, his passing was excellent. Lord knows what's happened to his shooting.
Giuly - 7 - The perfect winger for this team. Created danger with his runs. His value is much greater for a team like Barca that has an opposite winger like Ronaldinho who can pick him out.
Eto'o - 8 - Turned Sol Campbell to make a great chance that Almunia deflected onto the post, then scored the goal that completely turned the game.
Iniesta - 7 - He's turned into quite the midfielder. He made runs through the middle with purpose and started the move that led to the equalizer.
Larsson - 8 - Two assists. I would have loved to see him get a third to finish the game off.
Belletti - 7 - Got to play his perfect role: one with no defensive responsibility. Scored the goal that will be replayed a thousand times tonight in Catalunya, although I need to see it again to figure out if it was going in without assistance from Almunia's leg.
Rijkaard - 8 - Three subs, one goal, two assists.
I'll need a few days to think about where this night ranks in my all-time sports pantheon, but it has to be right up there. I've been rooting for Barca ever since I started to pay attention to European soccer after the '94 World Cup and always wondered if I picked them because I love "close, but not quite" teams. Watching Real Madrid win European titles one after the other led to "am I ever going to see Barca win one?" thoughts. Not anymore. This will be behind the 1/1/98 Rose Bowl, the '96 NCAA hockey finals, the '95 World Series, and the two game sevens against the Pirates, but after that, I'm not sure.