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Dreams to behold

Recapping the positives from Champions League final

Posted: Thursday May 18, 2006 11:20AM; Updated: Thursday May 18, 2006 4:59PM
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In a picture-perfect swan song, substitute forward Henrik Larsson provided the spark Barcelona needed late in the game.
In a picture-perfect swan song, substitute forward Henrik Larsson provided the spark Barcelona needed late in the game.
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Admit it: You thought Arsenal was going to pull it off. I sure did. I've been a nonbeliever all season long and didn't see any way the magic was going to keep going. Down a man, still in control -- it just seemed like ... well, it seemed like destiny. But with a few bounces, Barcelona battled back and won the Champions League.

I agree with most of the Arsenal players that there were some iffy calls made by the referee, but they went both ways. Instead of playing what-if, speculating on Thierry Henry's imminent departure and wondering what will happen to Jens Lehmann's confidence heading into the World Cup, let's focus on the plethora of positives during this match.

• In a Hollywood-perfect swan song, Henrik Larsson sparked Barça to victory. There's no doubt in my mind that the fan favorite and former European Golden Boot winner was the reason for the turnaround. Barcelona was toast until Frank Rijkaard subbed the Swede in for Mark van Bommel. Larsson's creativity led to both goals -- the Blaugrana faithful will miss him.

Fredrik Ljungberg looked like the Freddy of old. Larsson's mate in Sweden's attack (and the other bald, once-dominant Swede on the pitch Wednesday) made some nifty runs on goal and nearly scored one of his own. You almost forgot what a weapon the 29-year-old used to be.

• The goaltending was fantastic. Víctor Valdés was a wall, and probably made Spanish national coach Luis Aragonés think twice about his decision to call on Pepe Reina as a backup instead of the Catalonian. And except for the last 15 minutes, Manuel Almunia did a superb job for the Gunners in the most pressure-filled situation of his career.

• More proof of the emergence of Emmanuel Eboué and Kolo Touré as two of the best defenders in the game. During their breakout year, the Ivorians have put the clamps down on some of the toughest offenses in the sport and have proven their worth on the big stage. Two more reasons the world should be extremely wary of Ivory Coast next month.

Ciao bella, Italia

Juventus has probably never won such a hollow title. The scandal that's shaking up Italian soccer is by far the worst thing to happen in at least 25 years to a sport that has almost always been on shaky ground on The Boot. Fans are never going to know the true depth of how many strings were pulled and how it directly affected the results of matches.

For now, it doesn't seem like we can excuse any club. In the interest of fairness -- just as we did when Brazil's match-fixing scandal went down last fall -- we're pulling Italian clubs from the Rankings until the details get sorted out. One thing's for sure: This could be a critical blow for Juve's fans back home, who were famously absent to begin with.

• Our man Luis Bueno pointed out that we had 11 writers on our World Cup team profiles and came up with his own SI.com Starting XI:

Goalkeeper: Mark Bechtel; Defenders: Arash Markazi, Ricardo Setyon, Jon Pickstone, Ryan Hunt; Midfielders: Gregory Sica, Luis Bueno, Grant Wahl, Ben Franklin; Forwards: Jonah Freedman, Gabriele Marcotti.

Looks solid to me. Princeton alum Wahl is clearly the brains on the field, while Sweet Louie B is our enforcer (although he says he tires easily). Sica once played with the Perth Glory youth team, so he'll be our spark with South American flair. Setyon speaks six languages, so he'll be the glue -- and locker-room espionage expert. In the backline we've also got the irrepressible Pickstone, who grew up on a bitter diet of physical Manchester football. The only thing that makes it through him is beer by the liter. "Baggy Trousers" Franklin gets the wing.

Apparently Luis says we're going to rely on me heavily for scoring, which isn't good news -- I'm little more than a grade-A poacher. We hereby challenge you, Team Soccernet -- are you ready?