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By ESPN Staff
May 18, 2006

Triumphant Rijkaard joins elite club

PARIS, May 17 (Reuters) - Barcelona coach Frank Rijkaard heaped praise on losers Arsenal after the Champions League final and was not surprised they were such a hard nut to crack.

"Arsenal did a great job and played a great game," the Dutchman told a news conference after Barca claimed their second European Cup in the 50th anniversary final in Paris.

Barca's 2-1 victory at the Stade de France completed an unprecedented week of success for Spanish teams after fellow Primera Liga side Sevilla crushed Middlesbrough 4-0 in another Anglo-Spanish duel to win the UEFA Cup last Wednesday.

"It wasn't easy and it didn't surprise me that they were so hard to beat," said Rijkaard. "Before the game I said there were no favourites in a final and that this would be a special, one-off experience and it was just that."

Arsenal dominated the opening exchanges and recovered from the 18th-minute dismissal of goalkeeper Jens Lehmann to take the lead before halftime with a Sol Campbell header.

"Arsenal started really well and it seems that when a player is sent off it is even more difficult to break down a side," said Rijkaard. "When they scored the goal it helped them even more and boosted their team spirit.

"The fact that a player was sent off changed the game dramatically. It was a shame but we have to live with it and it was a pity for the fans."

The north London side looked as though they might hold on to win their first European Cup but Barca striker Samuel Eto'o eventually found a way through the miserly Arsenal defence to level the game 14 minutes from time.

With fatigue starting to play a part, the Catalans unlocked the Arsenal back four once again five minutes later, this time Juliano Belletti blasted the ball under keeper Manuel Almunia after some great work by fellow substitute Henrik Larsson.

"The equaliser was very important and broke something mentally for Arsenal," said Rijkaard. "After that we were in control and it was great to win such a special game.

Rijkaard, a three-times European Cup winner as a defender with AC Milan and Ajax Amsterdam, became the fifth man to win the competition as player and coach.

Only Real Madrid coach Miguel Munoz, Dutchman Johan Cruyff, and Italians Giovanni Trapattoni and Carlo Ancelotti have achieved the feat before.

Cruyff won three European Cups with Ajax and then steered Barcelona to their only previous triumph as coach in the 1992 final against Sampdoria.

"I can't really remember how I felt as a player, but I'm certainly enjoying this now," said Rijkaard.

"The best thing is that the trophy says 2006 Champions League winners -- Barcelona and that is what means most to me, the players and the club."