In sports, “what if” is a question borne entirely out of regret, but one that we can’t help but ask ourselves. Every fan has their “what if” moment for their team, from player trades to missed shots to questionable tactical decisions to everything in between. Today, I decided to go straight for the sorest “what if” spot in Arsenal history - the ill-fated 2005/06 Champions League final against Barcelona.
Arsenal, for all of their pedigree in English football, are notoriously poor in European competitions, a black mark upon the club if ever there was one, and perhaps the one blemish upon Arsene Wenger’s decorated legacy. Despite their historic teams, European success has eluded Arsenal at every turn. They have never come closer to breaking that streak than the 2006 Champions League final against Barcelona in May of 2006.
Arsenal were in tremendous form in the Champions League leading up to their match against Barcelona, having conceded a total of two goals in the entire contest up to that point. They survived a gauntlet of perennial European super powers, besting the likes of Ajax in the group stage and Real Madrid and Juventus in the knock out stages before meeting Barcelona in the final.
The 2005/06 Barcelona squad featured some of the best to play the game for the La Liga side. Their roster was littered with the likes of Puyol, Xavi, Iniesta, Ronaldinho, Eto’o, Deco, and a young Messi, who didn’t even feature in the final. Arsenal were not going to have an easy go of it, but their success hinged upon playing a perfect game against the stout Catalan side.
We all know how this match went. The early chances, the sending off, the lead, and then the collapse before the final whistle blew and signaled the death knell for the North London side as Barcelona went on to win 2-1.
There’s that damn question. Springing up like a cowlick that just won’t be tamed, it pops into all of our heads when we rewatch the highlights. It’s staring us in the face at every missed chance.
What if Henry scores first?
Most people will remember this match primarily for Lehmann’s early red card. But another big moment that could have swayed the match in Arsenal’s favor came early on, when Thierry Henry’s missed an absolute sitter and a chance for the Gunners to take an early lead.
Arsenal came out of the gates quickly and were nearly rewarded for their efforts when Henry deftly directed a low cross from Emmanuel Eboue into open space in front of the box. The Arsenal legend, with no one but the keeper to stop him, placed a shot in the middle of the goal, right into the leg of the onrushing keeper, which deflected out for a corner.
So, what if Henry scores there? Well, the easy answer is that Arsenal go ahead early. But in a CL final, with everything to play for, every shot matters. In that moment, the greatest goal scorer in Arsenal (and Premier League) history missed what should have been an easy goal. In the alternate reality, that early lead gives Arsenal a cushion and the chance to play a little more defenisvely.
Perhaps that goal becomes the nagging pest that keeps Barcelona off their game, forcing them into bad shots as the match wears on. Arsenal were not going to give away goals easily, especially if Jens Lehmann doesn’t get sent off. If Arsenal double their lead with Sol Campbell’s header later in the half and hold a crucial two goal cushion into halftime, the chance of leaving Paris as champions goes from pipe dream to reality very quickly.
What if Jens Lehmann doesn’t get sent off?
Of all the times to get sent off, a CL final has to be the worst, and Lehmann’s red card was not only costly but historic, as the German goalkeeper became the first player to ever be sent off in a CL final. Lehmann’s decision to take down striker Samuel Eto’o proved a major turning point in the match, as the Gunners were forced to substitute attacker Robert Pires to make way for back up keeper Manuel Almunia.
The reality is that this decision was lose-lose to begin with. Samuel Eto’ had rounded Lehmann and had all but put the ball in the net when he was taken down. Lehmann had little recourse than to foul, and while it cost Arsenal a player, it kept Barcelona from taking an early lead, both in that they missed the subsequent free kick, and that Barcelona was not awarded a penalty as the foul occurred at the edge of the box.
So suppose Lehmann’s lays off and does not foul. Eto’o assuredly scores, but if Arsenal go on to equalize through Sol Campbell like the normal timeline, I think the game plays out much differently. With Pires on the pitch and Arsenal able to attack more, their chances to fight back and take a lead would have increased. Henry was off the mark for most of the night, but other players like Alex Hleb and Freddie Ljungberg found themselves in scoring positions despite the man disadvantage. An extra attacker could have proven the difference maker, and potentially the game winner.
While I’m not here to besmirch any players, I absolutely believe that Lehmann would not have let in at least one of the goals that Almunia did, especially the second Barcelona goal which saw Almunia megged from the tightest of angles. Lehmann’s experience was a major boost for Arsenal leading up to the final, and his absence cost Arsenal far more than a goal in the grand scheme of things.
What if Arsenal had to play AC Milan instead?
This is certainly the most iffy of the bunch, but it still needs to be asked. In their semi-final leg, Barcelona narrowly edged the Serie A side with a 1-0 aggregate. It is not hard to imagine the tie falling in the Italian side’s favor, and this “what if” could have seen the Gunners facing a different team altogether in Paris.
AC Milan were littered with legends of their own - Maldini, Cafu, Nesta, Rui Costa, Seedorf, Pirlo, Kaka, Shevchenko, to name a few. On the surface, their unsuccessful season seems like a massive underachievement considering their roster - third place finish in Serie A, losing the in the quarterfinals of the Coppa Italia, and the being bounced by Barca in the CL semis. But they were hamstrung early on when they were levied a 30 point deduction for their involvement in a massive Italian match-fixing scandal in the seasons before.
Still, AC Milan would have proven to be a similar beast of a different name. That they accrued a 30 point deduction and still finished third is evidence of their tremendous talent. The roster for the Rossoneri reads like a hit-list of footballing legends and would have been a tough test for the Gunners. But historically, Arsenal have fared far better against Italian sides than Spanish sides. Against teams from Italy, Arsenal have played 33 matches, won 16, and lost 8. Against teams from Spain, however, Arsenal have played 29, won 10, and lost 12 (including the CL final to Barca).
No matter how many “what ifs” we can posit, we all know how this ends - in pain and heartbreak. But in our minds, we can always imagine a better timeline for the Gunners and Arsene Wenger, one where Arsenal finally find glory in the Champions League.
And if that doesn’t help, you can always ask yourself this to feel better: “What if we were Tottenham?”