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Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Last Year Is This Year?

Memories of this years Champions League!

The start of the of the CL was met with expectations, after winning the Spanish league with style, what the culés wanted was the fat one.
Once the draw was made it was clear that in a group of Werder Bremen, Panantinaikos, Udinese, Barça would not have difficulties in qualifying, at least in normal circumstances. It was a mere formality almost. It gave Barcelona the opportunity to mix some great football with marvelous football. Very attack minded, with great results and allowing the fans to enjoy rather than suffered.

Once the first round was finished and Chelsea had come second, I just knew we would meet them, it was purely an intuition, but it was obvious that if Barça wanted to progress, they would have to finish an unfinished business.

The game against Chelsea, had two months of build up. It was almost insane, the league was a freeway, where the results just kept coming in, which was beneficial in order to be able to rest players against the first important game of the year. The one at Stamford Bridge. There was a sense of confidence, but no arrogance, but I was almost certain that Barcelona would go through. They had been naive in the previous year, where they granted Chelsea to dictate the return match. Another benefit was that the second game was at Camp Nou, meaning that if a good result could be obtained in England, qualification would be almost like a formality. The game was tainted the question of the state of the grass at Stamford Bridge, that the club had allowed it to deteriorate in order to slow down Barcelona's passing game. There was the classic sending off, with Asier Del Horno bumping down Messi, the youngster who everyone would be talking about after the game. Del Horno was lucky not to be sent off 10 minutes earlier, with a clumsy challenge, with studmarks showing for weeks afterwards. Barcelona totally dominated the game and even if Chelsea went up first, they were lucky to loose only 1-2. Mourinho was furious at Messi's so called play acting, stirring the atmosphere up even more. He was spat at upon arrival at the airport, but later Rijkaard pleaded the fans to meet him with respect at the stadium. When Ronaldinho scored a wonderful goal in the second half, the fans burst out singing "Mourinho, go to the theatre, go to the theatre, Mourinho go to the theatre". Class. I feel very proud that under Rijkaard's strict orders, the players should concede no free kicks on the edge of the penaties nor any corners. Mission fulfilled

The next rivals came briefly after and would be Benfica. For this game, I was much more nervous. As Benfica are not one of the major clubs in Europe anymore, there was a risk of relaxations. In the first game, Barcelona attacked and attacked and I think there were 20 shots on goal, but the goalkeeper simply had the game of his life. Every time Benfica counterattacked, I was truly nervous. Barcelona were also lucky to escape a penalty in the area. An unlucky result, but lucky at the same time. The return game came straight after el clásico with Madrid (rarely had that game meant as little). The players seemed confident, but there was also a morbo as Koeman was Benfica's coach (Koeman's scored Barcelona's goal in their only CL final victory), it would just be typical if he would be the man kicking Barcelona out of the tournament. Apparently each time the two clubs had met in the European cup the winner had later gone and won the tournament. In the first five minutes of the return leg, Ronaldinho missed a penalty and we were all wondering if the goalkeeper would have his miracle moment again. Soon thereafter Ronaldinho scored the first goal of the game. The second half took for ever to arrive and Benfica were approaching the opposite area with decision, but fortunately no precision. Simao seem to have the game in his hands, but Valdés made a great safe. That goal would probably have meant that Benfica would go through. Five minutes before the end, Eto'o scored a wonderful goal and I have rarely experienced such a relief.

Next were Milan. Remembrance of the 1994 final, were Milan thumped Barcelona in Athens, 4-0 to win the final, was brought up. A good sign. As there was some kind of revenge in the air. Deco was suspended for the second game, which was almost a blessing as he had a serious dip in the second half of the season. Larsson was also out, so was Messi, who had not returned from the injury in the return leg of the Chelsea game. I was in Spain for the semifinal, going to a restaurant with my dad and his friend, eating tapas and drinking wine. A great way to watch football. It was a very tactical game, almost Italian. Milan were reaching the area, but it just did not seem to be their night. Iniesta got his BA in the games against Benfica, where he controlled it the moment he came on, but against Milan he had another immense game, were he got his Master. He simply over shadowed, Pirlo, Seedorf and Gattuso. It was so lovely to see. Ronaldinho had one moment of magic, were he released Giuly, who scored the only goal of the game. A Frenchman handing us the ticket to Paris? Now there was only a result to be held out at Camp Nou. Milan were again attacking and came close a few times, as did Barcelona. It was probably a very boring game for neutrals. Barcelona could count themselves lucky that a Schevchenko goal was disallowed, for something noone really seems to be able to grasp. Lucky. Then again Champions always have luck on their side. Five minutes before the end, the stadium suddenly started to believe what everyone had hoped for: a ticket to Paris. It was such a feeling to experience to contained eruption of 98 000. It was like a murmurring staccato, which suddenly became loader and loader. Si Si Si Nos Vamos A Paris (yes, yes, yes we are going to Paris). The whistle did not come soon enough, but then it did and tears were streaming down on everyone. The walk down from the stadium was slower then ever, with everyone singing. I would turn around and see the joy in the face of 70 year old men in suits, or youngsters all singing together. The smile of the lady next to me, is hard to forget. The noise of the cars, everyone, everyone was singing and dancing. Something very very rare in the reserved nation of Catalunya.

Paris 17 May 2006
A day that could not come soon enough. For all the time since the final whistle of the CL semifinal, this was the day. I think I thought about it constantly. For a little moment lets fight the mess with the tickets to the final (something that almost overshadow the fact that Barcelona were in their first European final since Athens), but lets remember the day for what it was. I was so nervous the whole day, that I could just not decide were I was going to watch it, it was almost going down to the very last instinct. I tried to remember all the superstitious little things that I did before the big games. However I decided to break all of them and just go with my inner feeling. In the end I can hardly remember anything of the game. Although I suspect if the Giuly's goal would not have been disallowed I believe that Barcelona would have been 3-0 up before half time. However that was not the case and the referee denied us of a true final by sending off Lehmann. This meant that Arsenal would close themselves up at the back even more efficiently and rely on Henry even more. Thierry Henry had a great chance at the start of the game, which Valdés saved, a great safe, he would later repeat that in the 70th minute. Before the first half whistle Arsenal were up by one goal. Barcelona had most off the possion, but were incapable of penetrating the Arsenal defence. Arsenal's counter attacks were poisenous, but not lethal. In the 70th minute, Henry had a one on one with Valdés, but his shot was lame. This was the moment things could turn. It was obviously not his night. Rijkaard made some fantastic substitutions, brave and precise. Iniesta came on for Emilson, Larsson and then Belleti. Iniesta would be the man dictating the game, where Arsenal were exhausted after having to play most of the game with 10 men. I believe Arsene Wenger should have been equally as brave, as a Barcelona goal would have been a big psychological blow. Instead of bring on Reyes which could have helped Henry to run at Barcelona's defenders, he brought on Flemini, a defender. Henry had been able to run past Márquez and Puyol almost at will, but not putting the ball in the net, perhaps he could have done with some help. However it was another substitutions who made a huge impact. It was going to be his last game for Barcelona, before retiring to Swedish football. Henrik Larsson, alongside was the difference. He sliced a pass through to Eto'o who scored the equaliser. Eto'o received the ball and in a lightning quick second changed feet to score with the other one and getting Almunia off balance. A few minutes later the most unlikely hero of them all was to score his first goal ever for the club. Juliano Belleti. Belleti is a player, who most fans seemed to agree, was their worst player. Someone who had no tactical ability and very often he would attack and attack, leaving a huge field behind him, where opponents would punish his team. Tonight was different though, he was supposed to attack. Larsson penetrated the ball into Belleti's path with great precision and Bam. Goal. The commentatory on the radio was fantastic. It was told with almost a coolness, when Belleti received the ball. No one believed he would score, so when he did it got everyone by surprise. Suddenly there was a new hero. Juliano Belleti. He stumbled a few metres after scoring the goal, until falling down, with Eto'o next to him crying. It was raining tropically, but that was of little matter. The players created a small Kilimanjaro replica, lying on top of each other, gasping the moment. The equaliser never seemed to arrive, I was starting to belief and tell myself: "Don't worry, it is only football". When the first one came, I knew the title would be ours. Only a couple of minutes were left and ...


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