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Wednesday
Aug202014

We’re On Our Way

 

BY ANDREW ALLEN / @AAllenSport

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“We can be proud...we can be so proud.”
 
Thierry Henry, 17 May 2006, Paris. 
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In the 24 years that I’ve been watching Arsenal, I have come to realise that there is no uniformity in the way one deals with defeat. There have been results that have left me fuming with anger and frustration, beatings which have moistened the eyes, setbacks met with casual shoulder shrugs and losses confronted with gallows humour. There have even been failures, akin to fruitless romantic conquests, which despite being put to the back of the mind continue to this day to wriggle from the depths to stir unexpected and heartfelt groans. 

Defeat to Barcelona in the 2006 Champions League Final, however, stands alone. Perhaps it was the romantic Parisian setting, or maybe a hangover from the sentimental farewell to Highbury just days before, but where pain should have pulsed through my veins in the aftermath of Juliano Belletti’s winner, there was instead pride and an unadulterated sense of belonging.

Yes, Arsenal had fallen at the final hurdle, but the manner in which the race had been run up to that point was nothing short of heroic. Deliciously dynamic, nail-bitingly ugly, robust, exhilarating and so often gut-wrenching; the twelve games on the road to the Stade de France had come in all shapes and sizes and seen minnows and giants banished alike.

THE FINAL FAREWELL 

From the moment a date was set for the move to the Emirates Stadium, the countdown to an emotional Highbury send-off became an unavoidable reality. After 93 years making a home betwixt its glorious Art Deco facades, few expected to walk away from their favoured turnstile without a tear or two.

Acknowledging the importance of tipping collective caps at the achievements of days gone by, and recognising the merchandising potential of paying respect to Highbury’s history, Arsene Wenger’s men were kitted out in a commemorative redcurrant home shirt which echoed the strip sported by their antecedents of 1913. It was a popular move and one which saw thousands of supporters forego Herbert Chapman’s red and white as the Premier League kicked off against Newcastle United.

As reigning FA Cup champions and with the record-breaking 49 game unbeaten run still fresh in the memory, expectations were high that domestic success would add an extra gloss to proceedings come May. Regrettably, it was not to be so. While Highbury remained a fortress in the league until mid-December, a poor run of away results proved to be the club’s downfall. By the New Year thoughts of winning a 14th title had been supplanted by worries that neighbours Tottenham Hotspur might pip the club to fourth place in the table.   

CONTINENTAL SALVATION

It was therefore to the continent that Arsenal looked for salvation. Awaiting them in the group stage; Swiss side FC Thun, Dutch giants Ajax and Czech outfit Sparta Prague.

While qualifying for the Champions League had posed little problem during the Arsene Wenger era, progressing past the quarter-final stage had proved nigh impossible. Valencia and Chelsea took turns to dash hopes of European glory when momentum seemed to be building in 2001 and 2004, while defensive naivety, home games at a decrepit Wembley and abysmal away form helped scupper five other attempts between 1998 and 2005.

What was equally painful for Arsenal fans was the fact that both Manchester United and an unbelievably gutsy Liverpool side had both claimed the big-eared trophy either side of two Premier League coronations in North London. While a sense of entitlement grew year-on-year, so too did the pain of inevitable letdowns. It almost felt like the club had developed a kryptonite aversion to success in Europe’s premiere knockout competition; a suggestion that history certainly backed. Whereas the Fair’s Cup and Cup Winners’ Cup had made their way to the trophy cabinet in 1970 and 1994, their bigger brother was yet to make an appearance.

There was little sign of an end to the malaise as the Clock End timepiece struck 9.37pm on 14th September 2005. Down to ten men in the first group game against Swiss minnows FC Thun and with the scores locked at 1-1, the Gunners looked nothing like potential competition frontrunners. That was until substitute Dennis Bergkamp tenaciously wriggled free in the penalty box, lost the ball, retrieved it and calmly slotted home to seal three morale-boosting points in the third minute of injury time. The game was in many respects totally forgettable, but as with all last gasp winners the sweetness of the result overshadowed the acidity of the performance. It set the tone for what lay ahead.

Having sold the talismanic Patrick Vieira to Juventus during pre-season, Thierry Henry and Gilberto Silva struggling with injuries and Jens Lehmann and Robin van Persie suspended, there was a makeshift look to the spine of Arsenal’s side by the time they visited the Amsterdam Arena for the second group game versus Ajax. Luckily, the depth of Wenger’s squad still saw him able to call on ‘invincible’ stalwarts Robert Pires and Freddie Ljungberg, both of whom netted on the way to a creditable 2-1 win. We didn’t know it at the time but Markus Rosenburg’s reply for Ajax in the 71st minute was to be the last goal conceded for 995 minutes.

COMETH THE HOUR, COMETH THE MAN 

Struggling with a groin injury for the majority of the first two months of the season, Thierry Henry had been treated with kid-glove hands by the Arsenal medical team despite his teammates struggling to match his revered scoring prowess. However, eager to ensure progression to the knockout stage by securing the magic nine point marker as quickly as possible, the striker was a surprise inclusion on the Gunners bench when Wenger’s patched-up side travelled to the Czech Republic to face Sparta Prague.

Having scored a brace against Fulham in late August, Henry had spent a full six weeks frustratingly sitting one short of Ian Wright’s 185 goal scoring record. As expectations mounted in the press and on the terraces, there was great hope that like Wright before him, the landmark would be reached in front of a packed Highbury.

It wasn’t to be quite so poetic, but that isn’t to say that reaching and surpassing the milestone in Prague was devoid of a quixotic edge. Unsheathed from the blankets of the bench to replace the injured Jose Antonio Reyes in the 15th minute, Henry put in one of those individual performances that to this day makes the hair on the back of your neck stand up. Socks rolled above his knees, the gloved musketeer reclaimed the captain’s armband from Gilberto and set about his business with gusto.

Inside four minutes he made his mark. Superbly controlling a long ball by Kolo Toure, he swivelled on the edge of the Sparta box and in one balletic movement curled an unstoppable shot into the back of the net with the outside of his right foot. The pitch-level camera angle did the goal particular justice, capturing the swerved path the ball followed around a defender, as it veered outside the left hand post and dipped with pace past the keeper. It was a superb effort and indicative of the quality which Henry had demonstrated since arriving from Juventus in the summer of 1999. He thumped his chest with pride and glared with his trademark Gallic haughtiness; it was goal number 185.

In the second half, his scowls turned to beaming smiles. Even ‘Titi’, ever the coolest of cats, wasn’t able to mask his joy at becoming Arsenal’s greatest ever goal scorer. Receiving a delightful through ball from his partner in va-va voom, Robert Pires, he bore down on goal with two defenders to his rear and the Sparta keeper racing off his line. Having scored from similar scenarios countless times before, he was never going to miss and calmly slotted the ball home with the aid of a slight deflection. Well aware of what he’d just done, but also conscious that the moment may have slipped the attention of others he beckoned his teammates to celebrate with him. They were all too happy to pass on their congratulations.

That the historic brace was scored against a Sparta side sporting a redcurrant strip directly inspired by the one which Arsenal had themselves revived to celebrate their final season at Highbury added a tasty garnish. It was one of those nuances of circumstance that so often pepper football almanacs, but are all too often forgotten. 

FORWARD

Three wins out of three became four out of four when Sparta were swept away on their return visit to London. Henry again got on the scoresheet while Robin van Persie, developing a reputation as something of a super sub, bagged two in a routine 3-0 victory which secured safe passage to the knockout rounds with two games to spare. The win was the first time Arsenal had recorded four on the trot in continental competition for over thirty years, but it still didn’t guarantee top spot in the group. A late Robert Pires penalty in Switzerland finally did the honours as plucky Thun were downed 1-0 before a drab 0-0 draw against Danny Blind’s Ajax confirmed that the Gunners would progress to the knockout rounds unbeaten for the first time ever.

Despite indulging in the best run of European form since 1972, there was little optimism in North London that this particular Arsenal side would be the one to break the club’s Champions League duck. The squad was being stretched to the limit with the much maligned Manuel Almunia and Pascal Cygan both forced into action and youngsters such as Gael Clichy, Emmanuel Eboue, Alex Song, Philippe Senderos and Mathieu Flamini all blooded in place of the injured Lauren, Sol Campbell, Ashley Cole and Gilberto. Even the likes of Kerrea Gilbert, Seb Larsson and Quincy Owusu-Abeyie garnered first team minutes.

When the draw for the first knockout round saw Real Madrid’s name pulled out of the hat, there was a real sense that such youthful exuberance could be found wanting. Indeed in the month before travelling to the Bernabeu, Everton, West Ham United and Liverpool all beat the Gunners in the league, while a defeat to Sam Allardyce’s Bolton Wanderers meant there would be no successful defence of the FA Cup; it was a painfully bad run of domestic form and made you fear the worst ahead of a clash with the reigning Spanish champions.

AGAINST THE ODDS

Amazingly all fears of a trouncing at the hands of the ‘Galacticos’ proved unfounded. Whatever wise words Arsene Wenger had imparted to his team ahead of the first leg, they seemingly worked wonders as his side produced a near pitch perfect performance in the Spanish capital.

The 4-5-1 formation, introduced to provide more midfield solidity away from home, proved as fluid as any of the performances achieved with the previously favoured 4-4-2 set-up. Gilberto Silva expertly swept up trouble in front of defensive pair Philippe Senderos and Kolo Toure, Alex Hleb and Jose Antonio Reyes provided energy on the wings, while Freddie Ljungberg and Cesc Fabregas were the creative hub charged with providing ammunition for Thierry Henry. 

Inside the first two minutes Reyes forced a fantastic save from Casillas, minutes later a terrific tackle from Roberto Carlos denied Ljungberg, Henry then headed wide from six yards. They were three terrific chances and the clock hadn’t even reached ten minutes. Marvellously, Arsenal didn’t relent and by the time the referee signalled for half-time there was a real sense that the Gunners had the momentum to become the first English side to win in the Bernabeu.

Two minutes after half-time Cesc Fabregas, who had expertly dominated proceedings, calmly fed a pass to Thierry Henry. From the centre circle he drove like a raging bull towards the Madrid goal brushing off Ronaldo, Guti and Sergio Ramos before sliding a left foot strike across Casillas into the bottom corner. “Hennnnnnrrrrrrryyyyyyyy,” yelped Clive Tyldsley in the ITV commentary, “He’s scored! He’s scored for Arsenal in the Bernabeu!” He had, he really had. Across the world Arsenal fans reacted with jubilation as they indulged in replays of a breathtaking goal by a Gunner Galactico in one of football’s most famous cathedrals.

Ljungberg, Pires and Abou Diaby all had chances to double the lead in the final minutes as the pocket of travelling fans mockingly chanted, ‘adios, adios, adios,’ at the despondent and departing Madridistas. As the final whistle blew, the sight of Philippe Senderos in a lengthy embrace with the legendary Raul seemed to sum what had just happened. It was a genuine underdog victory.

With a slim advantage to defend in the second-leg at Highbury there was a fear that Arsenal could retreat into their shell, sit deep and try and hold out for 90 minutes. Mercifully, it wasn’t to be the case, as the most exhilarating 0-0 draw ever witnessed by the North Bank came to pass. Both sides attacked with guile and quick interplay, last gasp tackles were in abundance, the woodwork was shaved then rattled, and shots were blocked by any means possible.

The game, played against the backdrop of an electric atmosphere, had everything – everything that is, but a goal. In the main that was thanks to a superb late save by Jens Lehmann who commando-rolled across his Clock End six yard box to deny Raul when the Spaniard’s mishit shot looked destined for the back of the net. It was a fine demonstration of athleticism by the eccentric German and ensured victory without the need for extra-time. The Gunners marched on, goalless but glorious. 

COMING OF AGE

Two days later Arsenal were paired with Juventus in a mouth-watering quarter-final tie which saw Patrick Vieira inevitably dominate the pre-game headlines. It had only been eight months since Arsene Wenger had sanctioned the sale of his protégé and the pairing felt somewhat inevitable despite the towering midfielder remarking: "At times destiny serves up some surprises.”

Running away with the Scudetto (although they were later to be stripped of the victory as part of the Calciopoli match-fixing scandal), Fabio Capello’s side represented formidable opponents. Bolstered by the arrival of Vieira, La Vecchia Signora could also call on Gianluigi Buffon in goal, Fabio Cannavaro and Lilian Thuram in defence, Pavel Nedved and Emerson in midfield and strike options including David Trezeguet, Adrian Mutu and Zlatan Ibrahimovic.

Despite the stellar cast, the only name spoken about in the aftermath of the first leg was that of Cesc Fabregas – it was without question a coming of age performance. After two years learning from Vieira on the training fields of London Colney, the 18-year-old Catalan skewered his old mentor like a matador in the bull ring. He ran the midfield with impish authority, always showing for the ball, relentlessly eager to link-up play for his teammates and providing an end product which all but won the two-legged tie inside 90 minutes.

Six minutes before half-time a tackle, as crunching as it was rare, saw Robert Pires dispossess Patrick Vieira and lay a ball into the path of Thierry Henry. Surveying his options the striker picked out a darting Fabregas who with his first touch controlled the ball, with his second teed up a shot and with his third dispatched the ball through Thuram’s legs and past a flat-footed Buffon. He wheeled away in celebration almost surprised at his own brilliance.

Thierry Henry vs Juventus 05/06 Home from Thierry Henry14 on Vimeo.

 

In the second half, the diminutive maestro returned the favour for Henry. Racing through the Juventus defence from a deep midfield position he latched onto a perfectly weighted pass by Alex Hleb before cutting the ball across the box for Henry to double the lead. Game over and the Italians went into self-destruct mode. First Vieira was booked and subsequently banned from the second leg before Mauro Camoranesi and Jonathan Zebina were each sent off.

It didn’t get much better for the Turin giants in the return leg; the crumbling Stadio delle Alpi a fitting home for a side whose European aspirations were eroding by the second. In cruise control, Arsenal retained good possession of the ball and, having amassed seven consecutive clean sheets in the Champions League, never looked likely to give away their two goal cushion. Seeing out a 0-0 draw was achieved with a minimum of fuss and demonstrated a level of maturity with boded well for the semi-final fixtures against La Liga opponents Villarreal.

The only serious worry for the travelling Gooner brigade was how to get out of a stadium set alight by disgusted locals and where to get a celebratory drink in a city which had banned the sale of alcohol for 48 hours. Thankfully, most were successful in both tasks. 

FANCIED FOR THE FIRST TIME

Having vanquished Ajax, Real Madrid and Juventus, three of football’s great aristocrats, a semi-final showdown with a club making their first appearance in the Champions League was not so much underwhelming, as it was disconcerting. Given Arsenal’s travails trying to surmount the European football ladder, there was certainly no room for underestimating Villarreal.

Tough opponents, with a distinctly Latin feel, the Yellow Submarines had come third in La Liga to qualify for the competition and subsequently helped knock out Manchester United before eliminating Rangers and Inter Milan. Counting seven players from South America including the mercurial Argentine Juan Roman Riquelme and Uruguayan hot-shot Diego Forlan they were dangerous on the break and tough to break down in the midfield.

The pressure was on and Highbury sensed as much as the last ever European match at the grand old arena kicked off. It was the first time in months that Arsene Wenger’s young squad had been tipped as favourites and that sense of expectation triggered a noticeable level of nervousness despite Kolo Toure giving the Gunners the lead on 41 minutes.

As was so often the case, Thierry Henry was the catalyst. Reacting first to a cleared corner the World Cup winner fed a cunningly disguised pass to Alex Hleb allowing the Belarusian enough time and space to flash a low ball across the six yard box. It was crashed into the back of the net by Kolo Toure. While possession was dominated, the much wanted second goal failed to materialise. Villarreal were denied a stonewall penalty, Riquelme was booked and the home crowd cracked jokes about a squirrel which had made its way onto the pitch only to be greeted by chants of, ‘Gooner, Gooner, Gooner.’ In the second half Arsenal continued to press but the game petered out with both sides wary of committing too many men forward. It was to be a home win or bust for Villarreal as they settled for a 1-0 defeat in London.

Arsene Wenger promised publicly that the team would go on the offensive when they visited El Madrigal six days later. It sounded good on paper, but when it came to it, the Gunners froze. Quiz any Arsenal fan on what they recall of the first 88 minutes of the semi-final second-leg and they’ll no doubt recall nothing more than a torturous yellow blur and frantic action in and around Jens Lehmann’s goal. Time after time the Spaniards attacked and time after time they spurned chances to equalise. Then just as it looked as though Arsenal might close out the game, the referee awarded an incredibly harsh penalty against Gael Clichy for a nudge on Jose Mari. All and sundry knew that if Villarreal scored they would win the match in the resulting extra-time.

The responsibility of taking the spot kick fell to Juan Roman Riquelme. As the television cameras zoomed in to capture the moment, they three times focused on the Argentine’s face before he finally, after what seemed like an eternity, stepped up to take his kick. It was impossible not to recognise the look of utter fear in his eyes. When the Argentine finally made contact with the ball it was immediately apparent that Lehmann had outfoxed him. Diving to his left the athletic German parried the ball back past his adversary before Sol Campbell stuck out a leg to put an end to further danger.

It was football at its most cutthroat, a timeless ‘heroes and villains’ moment.  For Lehmann there was sheer jubilation, for Riquelme a nightmare which to this day he admits was, “one of the saddest moments,” of his career. Crushed by the miss the Villarreal players could no longer muster the energy to close down their opposite numbers and when the whistle finally sounded many were inconsolable. It was Arsenal’s night.

24 hours later Frank Rijkaard’s Barcelona ground out their own 1-0 aggregate victory versus AC Milan to ensure that they would be the opponents in Paris. It was the final a continent had craved.

PARIS IN THE SPRING

In the eyes of the wider football fraternity, the rollercoaster journey to the climax of Europe’s premiere club competition finally elevated Arsenal to an echelon which for so long under Arsene Wenger the club had strived to reach, while for supporters, it provided further evidence of forward momentum at a time when Art Deco opulence was being traded for towering modernism.

Ten days before the showdown in the French capital the curtain was finally drawn on 93 years of Highbury drama. The sun shone, flags were waved proudly, legends paraded, the pitch was flawless, Thierry Henry scored a hattrick, Champions League qualification was secured (at Tottenham’s expense of course), speeches were made, the clock ticked down, fireworks exploded and tears were shed as a capacity crowd, decked out in red and white, said their poignant goodbyes. It was a fitting final salute.

While a homely 38,359 had witnessed the end of an era in N5, it was estimated that over 50,000 Arsenal fans made the journey to Paris for the final on May 17th 2006. It was nothing short of an invasion. Around the Eurostar terminal at Gard du Nord, the streets heaved with Arsenal vendors and excited supporters who readily exchanged lager and chips for pomme frites and bière. Given the Anglo-French connection which Arsene Wenger had fostered during his decade in charge, even the locals seemed supportive of an ‘English’ win. The biggest match in the club’s history encouraged a carnival atmosphere, although as lucky ticket-holders bid au revoir to those who had to make do with local pubs, nerves began to take effect.

Could Arsenal really beat Barcelona? Was this finally the end of the wait for European glory? Unfortunately and heartbreakingly, it was not to be. On a night of torrential rain, Lady Luck finally chose to sever her ties with the club on whom she had doted so much in the preceding eight months.

With Georg Frideric Handel's "Zadok the Priest" still ringing in the ears of the 80,000 crowd, Thierry Henry twice went close to giving his side an early lead. In familiar, hometown surroundings he played like a man possessed desperate to recompense the Arsenal contingent in what seemed destined to be his last match before a summer switch to, of all teams, Barcelona. Despite toiling relentlessly his misses in both halves were to prove costly, although arguably not as damaging as the red card shown to Jens Lehmann after 18 minutes.

Penalised by referee Terje Hauge for felling Samuel Eto’o on the edge of the box, the goalkeeper received his marching orders despite Barcelona willingly slotting the loose ball into the back of the net. While his teammates called for the goal to stand and the German to be reprieved, there was little that could be done when the official chose to apply the letter of the law. It was an uphill battle after that even though Sol Campbell raised hopes by crashing home a powerful header to give Arsenal an unexpected half-time lead. 


Sol Campbell and Thierry Henry v Barcelona by dm_507fa47dd1161

As the clock slowly ticked down, Barcelona finally and inevitably imposed their game on the Gunners. In the space of five minutes the one nil advantage was overturned. First substitute Henrik Larsson freed Eto’o to slide an equaliser inside sub Manuel Almunia’s near post, then the Swede teed up Brazilian Belletti to drive home the winner with only nine minutes remaining. Arsene Wenger’s side had been gunned down and with no energy left to expend and lactic acid burning their muscles they limped to the final whistle unable to muster a response.

Initially stunned into stony silence by the cruel result, the Arsenal fans soon regrouped and found their collective voice. Over and over they cried, “Ar-se-nal, Ar-se-nal, Ar-se-nal.” It was a magnificent and devoted outpouring of passion at a moment when sullen contemplation seemed the only natural course of action. Against the cacophony of Cockney hollering, a bitterly disappointed Thierry Henry remarked: “We can be proud, whatever happened tonight, we can be proud.” He couldn’t have been more right. It had been a tremendous season and one which augured well for the future. Barcelona were champions, but Arsenal were winners as well.

If success is measured not by arrival at a final destination, but by the spirit and endeavour laid bare while undertaking the journey, then the European adventure of 2005-06  certainly lived up to the club’s motto Victoria Concordia Crescit.

In the 125 years since Arsenal was founded, it remains the closest the club has come to being crowned Europe’s best side. To have been part of the experience was an unforgettable privilege.

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(This article first appeared as a chapter in the book So Paddy Got Up – An Arsenal Anthology (Published December 2011). To learn more and to buy the eBook, see here)

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