On May 17th 2006, Arsenal came within fifteen minutes of cementing their status in Europe’s elite when they took on Barcelona in the Champions League final.
Two years on from the “Invincibles” season, the Gunners had reached the final of Europe’s premier club competition for the first time in their history, where they were to face off against a Barça side invigorated by the mastery of Brazilian magician Ronaldinho and constant goal threat of Cameroon international Samuel Eto’o.
The Stade de France was the venue – the ground on which Thierry Henry and Robert Pirès had won the World Cup with France eight years earlier – and as fans made the relatively short trip from London to Saint-Denis, there was a sense of nervous excitement amongst the Arsenal fans at the prospect of finally landing a European Cup.
Arsenal’s run to the final was built on the foundation of a rock-solid defence – having conceded one goal in each of their opening two group stage matches, they would not concede again before the final. Ajax, Real Madrid, Juventus and Villarreal all tried and failed to breach the impenetrable rearguard.
It resulted in a run of ten successive clean sheets from goalkeepers Jens Lehmann and Manuel Almunia – a record that still stands today.
Their opponents, meanwhile, had defeated tournament favourites Chelsea and 2005 finalists AC Milan on their way to the final; there was a very real sense that Frank Rijkaard had built something special at the Camp Nou and now was their time to emphasise that fact, having just won La Liga for the second year in succession.
They would, however be without young prodigy Lionel Messi for the final – the then-19 year old had not played since suffering a thigh strain against Chelsea in the last 16, and while Rijkaard had hoped to at least include him among the substitutes, in the end he could not recover in time.
One player who did recover was midfield star Xavi Hernández. The Spanish international had missed a large part of the season through injury but made the bench for the final, though he was not called upon to come on in the end.
The match itself began at a frantic pace with both sides enjoying early chances, but the game’s most controversial moment came in the 18th minute.
With Eto’o bearing down on the Arsenal goal, Jens Lehmann brought the forward down outside the penalty area. Although Ludovic Giuly subsequently rolled the ball into the empty net, referee Tom Henning Øvrebø refused to play the advantage and brought the ball back for a Barcelona free kick.
Lehmann was sent off, and Robert Pirès’s last game for Arsenal was cut short as the Frenchman was sacrificed for substitute goalkeeper Manuel Almunia. It was a refereeing decision that would later be vilified by Wenger and FIFA President Sepp Blatter, but the score remained 0-0 with Arsenal reduced to ten men.
Things became much better for the Gunners eight minutes before half time. A Thierry Henry free kick into the box was headed into the net by Sol Campbell – the ten men led going into the break.
Arsenal’s route to the final was built on defensive stability; they had kept out the likes of Ronaldo, Zidane, Raúl, Ibrahimović and Trezeguet – Eto’o and Ronaldinho should have held no fear for them
If Wenger’s side could just hold on for 45 more minutes, they would be champions of Europe.
Rijkaard replaced the injured Edmilson with Andrés Iniesta – yet to achieve true superstar status – at half time as his side went in search of an equaliser.
However, it was to be another substitution that proved to be the difference for Barça.
Striker Henrik Larsson had arrived at the Camp Nou in the summer of 2004 in a free transfer from Celtic. Despite suffering a serious injury a few months into his first season at the club, Barcelona chose to extend his contract, though he had already announced that he would be returning home to Sweden at the end of the 2005/06 season.
In his 30 minute appearance in Paris, he repaid every penny in wages that Barcelona had paid him, and then some. Where the myriad of superstars who started had failed to break down their stubborn opponents, Larsson proved to be the key.
With fifteen minutes remaining, Iniesta and Larsson combined to split the Arsenal defence and slide the ball through to Eto’o, who duly finished from a tight angle to level matters.
Shell-shocked, Arsenal failed to recover from the setback and were punished even further just four minutes later.
Larsson was involved again, receiving the ball from fellow substitute Juliano Belletti on the edge of the Arsenal penalty area before finding the Brazilian defender in the box with a return pass. Belletti scored his first (and only) Barcelona goal by firing past Almunia from an even tighter angle (though the goalkeeper should probably have done better) to give Rijkaard’s side the lead with just ten minutes to go.
There was to be no recovery. If anything, Barcelona looked the most likely to score again on the counter attack as Arsenal bombed forward in search of an equaliser.
Wenger sent on forward José Antonio Reyes – leaving Robin van Persie and Dennis Bergkamp on the bench – as he tried in vain to salvage the match.
As the final whistle rang out, the contrast in emotion was there for all the world to see. Arsenal players fell to the ground, dejected – they were within touching distance of victory but could not hold out. Their chance had gone. Barcelona, meanwhile, celebrated wildly – this was to be the beginning of something special for them, even if they were not quite aware of that yet.
Wenger was critical of the referee after the match, as well as conveying his disappointment at how his side had managed to let the lead slip away:
“It’s difficult to accept losing a game anyway but worse when you have to accept losing it on a wrong decision. The equaliser was offside and it was proven on television.
“Etoo’s goal is my biggest regret. To play 11 against 10 and be on top of that situation, but then to concede an offside goal is difficult to accept.”
Captain Henry echoed the sentiment of his manager, insisting that referee Øvrebø was unduly soft on some of the more robust Barcelona tackles, while praising the difference made by Larsson:
“I don’t know if the referee had a Barcelona shirt on because they kicked me all over the place. Some of his calls were strange. Maybe next time I’ll learn how to dive but I’m not a woman, so I want to stay on my feet.
“They are already a good team, so if you help them, it is going to be very difficult to beat them.
“No disrespect to Barcelona, I feel we played better than them when it was 11 against 11. We can be proud. Henrik Larsson was the difference, but I didn’t see Ronaldinho and I didn’t see Eto’o at any point – but, I’m sorry, some of the refereeing today was horrendous.”
It was the closest Arsenal had ever come to being crowned champions of Europe, and the closest they have been since. A semi-final appearance in 2009 has been the only bright spot in what has been a decade of European underperformance ever since.
For Barcelona, meanwhile, it has been an entirely different story. They would go on to win three more Champions League titles between 2009 and 2015 as they laid claim to being called one of the greatest sides of all time.
Arsenal were fifteen minutes away from being kings, and one wonders how long it will take to reach that point again.
Barcelona (4-3-3): Valdés, Oleguer, Márquez, Puyol, Van Bronckhorst, Edmilson, Deco, Van Bommel, Giuly, Ronaldinho, Eto’o
Subs: Belletti, Larsson, Iniesta. Subs Not Used: Jorquera, Sylvinho, Motta, Xavi
Arsenal (4-4-2): Lehmann, Eboué, Touré, Campbell, Cole, Pirès, Gilberto, Fabregas, Hleb, Ljungberg, Henry
Subs: Almunia, Flamini, Reyes. Subs Not Used: Senderos, Clichy, Bergkamp, Van Persie