Close but no cigar for fighting Gunners
Last night Arsenal took on the Spanish champions and widely renowned best club team in Europe in the European Champions League Cup final and after a titanic effort fell to a late defeat. Disappointment is a part of football - and yesterday it was the Gunners turn to suffer as the rain poured down in the Stade de France.
My congratulations go to Barcelona for victory. But my congratulations also go to my team for a fantastic effort in Paris last night. There is a lot of pride to take out of this defeat. To go down to ten men after twenty minutes and still yet take the lead and hold onto it against a rampaging team until 14 minutes left on the clock is a feat that shows what fantastic spirit and effort our team has. I can go across each player in the Arsenal side and know they gave it their absolute best to fight for the cause. And when I can do this, I am proud irrespective of the result.
Alex Hleb, Freddie (who played his best game of the season), Gilberto and young Francesc showed their fantastic character yesterday with tremendous performances on and off the ball. Henry took on Barca's defence in great style and if not for more deadly finishing should have had two goals (the one he failed to hit cleanly in the 70th min surely would have closed the match in our favour) - and he would have earned them. Eboue showed once again he is a Cafu in the making for Arsenal - his thrilling attacking surges really intimidated Barcelona and led to a freekick for Arsenal's goal through a towering Sol Campell header. Toure and Campbell did a good job trying to withstand the amazing number of probing Barca players converging into their area. And Ashley Cole put in some excellent last-ditch challenges to save the team. Finally, Manuel Almunia did very well to come on into the most prestigious match in Europe and make a few good saves - plus an exceptional one from Eto'o in first half injury time. I definitely don’t hold him at fault for either of the goals.
It's a big shame that Arsenal played the vast majority of this huge match with a man less after Jens Lehmann's sending off - but Jens only has himself to blame for rashly bringing down Eto'o. Yes, the ref could have played advantage, and therefore allow Arsenal to play on with eleven. But it is not mandatory that he should have done this. I feel especially sorry for Robert Pires - he looked really up for the match in the opening minutes and to see his dejected face as he walked off so early in the game was bad to see. Not being picked for the French world cup squad followed by an early departure from the biggest match of his life means that it has been an undeserved bad week for this massively underrated player.
Amid the natural massive disappointment of cup final defeat I think its only right to end with some context. In mid-February, Arsenal were severely rocking from their worst period of football perhaps ever seen in the Wenger era. We had just been sucker-punched out of the League and FA Cup, had an enormous number of defensive injuries, seemed unable to recover from the shock of losing Vieira, and in a very lame and low-in-confidence performance at Anfield had just accumulated our ninth Premiership defeat of the season. Many people thought we were down and out for this season - and certainly did not give us a chance of progressing in Europe.
Since then, Arsenal have fought back with tremendous spirit, character and playability. The next 18 matches (before last night) in both the Premiership and Champs League saw only two defeats and many fantastic victories: including great wins against Real Madrid, Juventus and Liverpool, and three in seven days scoring ten goals to clinch fourth spot and send-off Highbury in great fashion. All this with a team featuring many players just starting their careers, including a young defence that stayed strong against the best in Europe, and a player in Fabregas who underlined his massive potential combining fantastic playmaker ability with an outstanding big-match temperament.
In the last few months, this next-generation Arsenal has shown they can comeback against the odds to produce big results and superb team performances. Now, if Thierry stays or goes (and of course like every Gunner I really hope he stays to lead our young team), I would like to see Wenger bolster the squad this summer with two or three high quality players to ensure that this side continues to progress and not fall behind our Premiership rivals. We have just built one of the best stadiums in the world to play our football - now it is crucial that we build upon the immensely promising squad that took us to our first European Cup final.