It looked, for all the world, like a dream
Champions League final. Arsenal v Barcelona. Henry v Ronaldinho. Class and flair versus, well,
more class and more flair. What we didn’t count on, however, was idiot refereeing.
The first 20 minutes were lovely to watch, the football skilled and creative
and full of promise. Then Barca sliced open the Gunners’ defence, Samuel Eto’o
pushed the ball around goalkeeper Jens Lehmann and was brought down right on
the edge of the penalty area. The ball rolled wide to Giuly, who in turn rolled
it into the empty net.
All the referee had to do was play the shortest and most obvious of advantages
and Barcelona would have had the lead. But no, this goose – Terje
Hauge of Norway, to be precise – decided to pay the free kick,
meaning (a) Barcelona lost their goal and (b) Arsenal lost their
goalkeeper, sent off. They also lost Robert Pires (in his last match), who was
replaced to make way for the new keeper.
It was a staggering decision that changed the shape of the entire game and
seriously diminished it as a spectacle. Suddenly Arsenal had no option but to
sit back and try to get lucky on the break or from a free kick, while Barca
dominated possession but struggled to make it count.
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When Arsenal scored – from a free kick – it at least ensured the game survived
as a contest. Barca’s numerical superiority eventually told, however, with two
magical touches from substitute Henrik Larsson setting up the two late goals
that won the match.
But the game was littered with perplexing refereeing decisions that confused
players and observers. Thierry Henry was so enraged that he delivered an
almighty spray in a post-match interview – on the refereeing, the performances
of Ronaldinho and Eto’o and the physical treatment he’d received from Barca
defenders (which, given he’s continually linked with a move to Barca, was a
fascinating little sidelight that might yet ensure he stays with Arsenal).
In the end, Barca deserved their win. But neutral fans would have left feeling
cheated of the thrilling, adventurous contest that might have been if things
had been left to stand at 1-0 and 11-a-side.