Cameos key as Barça credits roll

For all the stellar talent of Ronaldinho and company, it required a true team effort for FC Barcelona to get past Arsenal FC on a dramatic evening in Paris.

The UEFA Champions League final has shared top billing in the French press this week with the premiere of The Da Vinci Code. Both blockbusters are set in Paris and at the Stade de France on Wednesday night, just as the film's Cannes screening was getting under way, FC Barcelona and Arsenal FC were on the trail of club football's holy grail.

Trophy premiere
Also being premiered was the fifth version of the European Champion Clubs' Cup on the 50th anniversary of the first final. The original may have cost just €6,500 but it is now the greatest prize in European sport. And if The Da Vinci Code novel has sold 40 million copies, tonight's Paris showpiece was watched by a television audience of 150 million.

Stars on view
Certainly, the humble suburb of Saint-Denis could rival Cannes in the star stakes. Football greats Ruud Gullit, Johan Cruyff and Gianluca Vialli as well as tennis legend Boris Becker were among the VIPs spotted in the TV studios and commentary positions. Real royalty in King Juan Carlos of Spain and Prince Albert of Monaco watched from the stands.

Star billing
Some 77,000 supporters served as extras but, of course, the true protagonists were on the pitch. Not the acrobatic pre-match performers but the players. None more so than Thierry Henry, the local boy with the movie-star looks, and Ronaldinho, more a character actor despite his beaming grin but the biggest box-office material in the world game.

Henry foiled
It was the scowling Frenchman rather than the smiling Brazilian who dominated the early scenes. Twice he came close to scoring in the opening three minutes. First he ghosted in behind the Barcelona defence but was denied by Víctor Valdés and the Catalan keeper produced an even better stop to push away his coruscating drive from the ensuing corner.

Cameo role
Ronaldinho had lined up in the middle of Barcelona's front three and the South American was initially restricted to a cameo role, an ambitious free-kick that flew off target after 12 minutes being his first attempt. But he was one of the key figures in Jens Lehmann's dramatic dismissal. That was to be Arsenal's sole punishment, as Ronaldinho's gentle effort went wide from the resultant set-piece.

Henry delivers
Instead, it was Henry who inspired the breakthrough. From a free-kick awarded after a foul on Emmanuel Eboué, the Arsenal captain curled in a cross that begged to be headed in and Sol Campbell duly obliged with a goal of personal redemption.

Ronaldinho switch
Ronaldinho was subsequently dispatched to his usual post on the left but the chief beneficiary of that was Eto'o who crashed a ferocious shot off the post soon after being moved inside.

Henry booked
Henry was now the lone ranger for Arsenal and was also tacking back as the Gunners protected their lead. He picked up a booking after 52 minutes yet then brilliantly won a corner and again relieved the pressure with a trademark run down the left 25 minutes from time. Henry missed a wonderful chance to seal victory after 70 minutes but was excelling as Arsenal's relieving outlet.

Team game
Ronaldinho's speculative efforts continued to lack his usual accuracy. However, Barça conjured a response without their misfiring talisman, as Henrik Larsson's touch and Eto'o's finish levelled matters with 14 minutes to go. And another supporting actor turned match-winner minutes later as Larsson played in fellow substitute Juliano Belletti to score from close range. Football may have its star system but it is ultimately a team game as Barcelona showed.