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Substitutes rescue Barcelona

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May 18, 2006 12:34 IST

Barcelona came perilously close to losing the Champions League final on Wednesday, but coach Frank Rijkaard's inspired substitutions rescued the Catalans from looming defeat and allowed them to lift the European Cup for only the second time in their history.

Rijkaard had been out-thought by opposite number Arsene Wenger and his side had been out-fought by the Londoners for much of a game that witnessed the first ever sending off in a final in the 50 years of the competition.

But the Dutchman's decision to introduce stylish young playmaker Andres Iniesta, veteran Swedish striker Henrik Larsson and attack-minded Brazilian right back Juliano Belletti changed the course of a match that had been drifting Arsenal's way.

Wenger had clearly done his homework on Barca as his side dominated the opening exchanges at the Stade de France in Paris, with Gilberto, Kolo Toure and Alexander Hleb shackling Ronaldinho and Emmanuel Eboue getting the better of Samuel Eto'o on the right.

Although Rijkaard had opted to use the more imposing Mark van Bommel in midfield in preference to the more creative Iniesta his side were hounded off the ball and were never able to settle into their usual fluent passing game.

But the Frenchman's plans started to go astray when keeper Jens Lehmann was shown a red card for grabbing the ankle of striker Eto'o just outside the area after only 18 minutes.

Barca had cause to complain that referee Terje Hauge did not play advantage as Frenchman Ludovic Giuly drilled the ball into the empty net.


But while Barca looked angry and frustrated at the decision over the free kick, adversity brought the best out of Arsenal who not only lost Lehmann, but also Robert Pires who trudged off disconsolately in his last appearance for the club.

Arsenal, as they have done so often in the past, treated setback as a springboard to a period of domination and after weathering some Barca pressure were ahead 20 minutes later.

Eboue, who had dared to flick the ball over Eto'o's head moments earlier, won a free kick for Arsenal to one side of the area after galloping down the right flank.

Thierry Henry flighted the ball into the area and Sol Campbell rose high above Barca defender Oleguer to send a header past goalkeeper Victor Valdes and inside the far post to score his first Champions League goal in 39 appearances.

Barca struggled to fight back and were thwarted time and time again, by Eboue, Gilberto, Campbell and substitute keeper, the Spaniard Manuel Almunia.

Ronaldinho, an inspirational presence for Barca throughout the season, was never able to conjure his way past the bullet-proof Arsenal defence and his usual smile change to a frustrated frown.

It was indicative of Barca's problems that the Brazilian sliced a shot 10 metres wide of the goal as he grew increasingly desperate at his side's failure to make headway against the Arsenal defence.

"They weren't especially dangerous or creative," Wenger admitted after the match.


But the introduction of Iniesta in the second half added more cutting edge to the Barca midfield whilst Larsson, who came on with half an hour to go, played a decisive role in his final game for the Catalans.

The Swede, who will be joining home-town team Helsingsborg next season, finally provided the key to unlock the Arsenal defence when he cleverly diverted the ball into Eto'o's path and the Cameroon international steered a low shot past Almunia at the near post 14 minutes from time.

Larsson also played a vital role in his side's winner when he got behind the Arsenal back four five minutes later before slipping the ball to fellow substitute Belletti.

The Brazilian full back, who had been left on the bench after Rijkaard preferred the more conservative Oleguer on the right, battered the ball under Almunia.

If Rijkaard lost the tactical battle at the start of the game, he was smart enough to rectify his decisions at the end and become only the fifth man to win the European Cup as both player and coach.

Before the match he had said his team would keep faith with their usual style of play, but it was only after the intervention of the three substitutes that they were able to overcome Arsenal and put to bed the ghosts of previous European failures.


Simon Baskett
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