Thursday, May 18, 2006

Barcelona Wins Super Bowl of European Football
By Imtiaz Mussa

Today was the Super Bowl of European Football. Arsenal and Barcelona had fought through the group stages and the knockout rounds to reach Stade de France hoping to be crowned Champions of Europe. Barcelona led by Brazilian star Ronaldinho and Catalan native Carlos Puyol would defeat the Gunners 2-1 but a simple recap would not do the game justice. I don’t know if I would rate this game ahead of last year’s match between Liverpool and AC Milan when Liverpool would come back and win on penalties or even the 1999 final when Manchester United got two goals within 100 seconds of each other in the dying minutes of the game to pull ahead of Bayern Munich 2-1 and complete their unforgettable treble. Nevertheless, there were plenty of highlights in this match.

Arsenal started the match on fire as they appeared to be one step ahead of Barcelona. It was a fact that captain Thierry Henry was especially pumped for the match and would will the English club to victory if he had to. Henry had extra motivation because he was playing in his home city of Paris. Credit must be given to Barcelona’s goalkeeper Victor Valdes for making two big saves in the first three minutes.

In big matches like these, referees have a tendency to play a role whether they like to or not. On a challenge of Samuel Eto’o in the 19th minute, Arsenal’s German goalkeeper Jens Lehmann came out to challenge the African Footballer of the Year. He upended the Barcelona striker who was attempting to go around him. Ludovic Giuly tapped in the loose ball, but Arsenal was at least reprieved from going behind because referee Terje Hauge had already blown for the foul. Lehmann was sent off for his foul on Eto'o with Manuel Almunia coming on for the unlucky Robert Pires. The difference between Lehmann and Almunia is not much. But, Arsenal is now down to 10 men for the remaining 70 minutes and has used one of their three valuable substitutions.

Barcelona was starting to take control when Arsenal stunned the favorites by going ahead after 37 minutes. Arsenal was fortunate to be given a free-kick when Emmanuel Eboue tumbled overdramatically under a challenge from Carles Puyol. And Barcelona were punished for referee Hauge's generosity as Sol Campbell powered Henry's free-kick past Valdes. Barcelona was stunned and started to play out of character. A team well known for pushing the ball up and taking advantage of their speed, the Spanish champions decided to be more patient and walk the ball up hoping to find someone open. However, Arsenal was disciplined enough to handle the task.

Barcelona made a half-time change, Andres Iniesta coming on for the injured Edmilson. Iniesta tested Almunia after 51 minutes, and with heavy rain coming down on the Stade de France, the keeper did well to hang on to a skidding shot. Barcelona was piling on the pressure, and Almunia again distinguished himself by pushing away Ronaldinho's cross as he raced into the area.

Arsenal was still dangerous on the break. Henry and Spaniard Cesc Fabregas combined to set up Aleksander Hleb, but he pulled his shot wide. Swedish winger and Calvin Klein underwear model Freddie Ljungberg was denied by a brilliant save from Valdes as he took advantage of poor defending by Barcelona right back Oleguer. Henry then had a glorious chance to double Arsenal's advantage after 69 minutes when he raced clear on goal, but Valdes saved low down to keep Barcelona's hopes alive. All during this time, Henry was having a heated debate with Wenger about getting another forward player such as Jose Antonio Reyes on to help him get a second goal and breaking Barca’s back. Wenger declined choosing to play conservatively and in most instances I would agree with him but Arsenal had so many quality chances to end this game that it would be worth the chance to bring Henry some support.

Former Celtic star Henrik Larsson had been introduced as a substitute, and he was instrumental when Arsenal's superb resistance was broken with 16 minutes left. He delivered a skillful touch into the path of Eto'o, who tucked a neat finish past Almunia. The Swede was the provider again as substitute Belletti gave Barcelona the lead with 10 minutes to go. Larsson's clever pass released Belletti, and he scored via a deflection from Almunia. It was a killer blow from which Arsenal never looked likely to recover. Reyes would finally come on but it was too late. Barcelona would win their second European championship.

Observations and Rumors
Man of the Match: Thierry Henry
He didn’t score a goal but he nearly willed Arsenal to the victory. The Barcelona backline had no answers for him and had it not been for Valdes, Arsenal would the Champions of Europe despite being a man down. He was truly inspiring to watch.

Coming a Close Second: Arsenal defenders
Holding Barcelona scoreless for 76 minutes while being a man down is an admirable task and remember, it was center-back Sol Campbell who scored the goal. Emmanuel Eboue was very impressive matching up against Samuel Eto’o.

Ronaldinho did not have a very good game. His free kicks were nowhere near on target and even his long balls did not look good. But still, Arsenal could not afford to let him go without being double teamed.

Barcelona’s Henrik Larsson has played his last game for the club. The former Celtic man will trade in his Barca jersey for his hometown club Helsingborg. The striker has signed an 18-month contract with the Swedish club. Nearing the age of 35, this will be the last stop for Larsson as he will end his career where he finished it.

When Robert Pires left the pitch in the 19th minute, it would be the last time we saw him in an Arsenal uniform. He will be unveiled as a Villarreal player next week, according to the Primera Liga club's president Fernando Roig. At 33 years old, Pires’ contract with Arsenal is up and the club is only willing to offer him a one year deal.

There will be plenty of speculation surrounding Arsenal’s Thierry Henry and Ashley Cole. The two of them have opportunities to move on to bigger money if they choose to. Left Wing-Back Cole is thought to be courted by Premiership champions Chelsea and Spanish giants Real Madrid as the heir to Roberto Carlos. Henry has long been rumored to be courted by Barcelona who would love to fit him in alongside Ronaldinho and Eto’o to form the fastest attacking force in the world. Right now he needs to ask himself if he has done everything he can at Arsenal. He has plenty of great memories but can he compete with the Chelsea juggernaut? Will Arsenal bring in another big name player to help him or will they continue to build with youth. It is entirely up to him. If he wants to go, Arsenal will accept £25 – 30 million and let him leave.

The Italian Scandal
The Italian Football Federation (FIGC) has been placed under administration in a response to the match-fixing scandal that has stunned the country. Guido Rossi was named on Tuesday as "extraordinary commissioner" of the beleaguered governing body. The 75-year-old Rossi is expected to introduce a raft of new legislation to clean up Italian football's reputation. Four teams, including champions Juventus, are under investigation for match-fixing and illegal betting.

His appointment follows a week that has seen FIGC president Franco Carraro and Vice-president Innocenzo Mazzini resign amid allegations that the governing body had allowed Juve to choose referees for their games. And on Sunday Juve's general manager Luciano Moggi, the man at the centre of the scandal, quit ahead of his grilling by prosecutors in Rome on Monday.

The Italian media on Tuesday published further intercepted telephone conversations between Moggi and football officials. But the most damning involved calls between the Juve boss and outgoing Interior Minister Giuseppe Pisanu. According to the transcripts, Moggi tried to pressure the politician to allow games to go ahead despite the imminent death of Pope John Paul II. Juventus, who are owned by the powerful Agnelli family that also controls car manufacturer Fiat, were scheduled to play against a Fiorentina team that had two players suspended and two others injured. The game was postponed when the pope died.

As well as Juventus, leading clubs AC Milan, Fiorentina and Lazio are also being investigated for alleged match-fixing and the manipulation of referee assignments. Among those called to give evidence in Rome on Tuesday are AC Milan coach Carlo Ancelotti, Inter coach Roberto Mancini, Serie A president Adriano Galliani and former referee Pierluigi Collina. The four are not under investigation but are being interviewed as "persons who may have knowledge of events."

This probe is concentrating on the possible rigging of 20 games two seasons ago, all but one in Serie A. Among the 41 people under investigation is Juve and Italy goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon.

The financial markets have been giving Juventus shares a beating ever since the story broke. As well as Moggi, the entire Juve board has resigned and with the focus of the investigation concentrated on the club the Turin giants face relegation to Italy's second flight next season if found guilty. The Milan stock exchange suspended trading in Juve shares on Tuesday for the second day in succession when they slid a further 10% in value. Juve's market value has now fallen by over £40m, or 20%, in the last week. Experts predict that Juve, Italy's most popular club, will lose at least £80m if they are relegated and stripped of their title and Champions League place.

Other News
Chelsea has unveiled Germany captain Michael Ballack as their first signing of the summer. The 29-year-old midfielder has arrived on a free transfer following the expiry of his contract with Bayern Munich. Ballack was also coveted by Manchester United but chose to join Chelsea and has signed a three-year-deal. His arrival will increase the competition in Chelsea's central midfield where Frank Lampard, Claude Makelele and Michael Essien have been regulars this season.

That’s not all. Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho is expecting a fight from AC Milan in his bid to sign striker Andriy Shevchenko. Chief executive Peter Kenyon confirmed on Sunday that the club wants to sign the Ukraine international who has said he is thinking of leaving Milan. Mourinho has also been linked to Argentina World Cup striker Carlos Tevez. Mourinho recently traveled to watch him play for Corinthians and Tevez, 22, is convinced he is on the brink of a move to Stamford Bridge. Real Madrid's Brazilian defender Roberto Carlos has said Chelsea want him but the Premiership champions are refusing to back his claims. Roberto Carlos could find himself surplus to requirements as the new coach rebuilds Real, whose ageing generation of Galacticos suffered a third successive season without a trophy. Chelsea refused to comment on speculation that Asier del Horno could move in the opposite direction as part of a possible deal.

Tottenham have agreed a fee of £10.9m for Bayer Leverkusen's Bulgarian striker Dimitar Berbatov. He finished second in the Bundesliga scoring charts with 21 goals in 34 games this season and has scored 31 goals in 50 games for Bulgaria. The £10.9m will be the second highest fee paid by Spurs, whose record transfer is the £11m paid for Sergei Rebrov from Dynamo Kiev in 2000.

Everton have clinched a one-year loan deal to sign Manchester United goalkeeper Tim Howard. United boss Sir Alex Ferguson has allowed Howard to move to Everton in the expectation he will return in a position to succeed Edwin van der Sar. Howard suffered in United's reserves since the signing of Van der Sar, but Ferguson is unwilling to contemplate a permanent sale because he still regards the keeper as having massive potential.


Blogger Eric said...

I would say Henry has almost accomplished all he can at Arsenal. League titles, an undefeated season, getting to the Champs' League Final.

It's going to be difficult to get back to the UCL Finals again with Arsenal having less money to spend after splashing for the new stadium. They will be a relatively young team now, and Henry may be too old to wait.

I find it hard to believe that Barca can find room on the field for Henry, E'too, and Ronaldinho, but it will be fun to watch.

Oh, and in honor of your blog name:

Bart: Dad, why are you sleeping on top of the doghouse.

Homer: I don't, I'll be quirky sometimes...I'llbequirky? Albequerque! They're moving the team to Albuquerque!

(That's just off the top of my head...forgive me if it's not verbatim)

10:51 AM  

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