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In defence of Sylvain Wiltord


Arsenal v Aston Villa. Sunday 9th December 2001. After West Ham's victory over Manchester United at Old Trafford on Saturday, the North Bank was bristling with unspoken optimism as kick-off approached. Titles are never won before Christmas, but after three years of dominance United seemed to be creaking and we were a team on the rise. This was a chance to be grasped with both hands.

However as half-time approached the only thing in my hands was my head.

Goals from Steve Stone and Paul Merson meant we were two-nil down and after succumbing 4-2 to Charlton at Highbury a month before, it looked like we were about to piss in the mouth of yet another gift horse. 

Wenger obviously agreed because we were treated to a lesser-spotted half-time substitution. Ljungberg off, Sylvain Wiltord on, it was time to go for broke. And this was a time when Arsenal really did go for broke...

Watching the Gunners chase down a deficit in those days was often a frustrating experience that left me with several self-inflicted injuries, but in sepia-tinted hindsight the intensity of such occasions was genuinely thrilling. Kanu, Bergkamp, Wiltord and Henry often formed a four-pronged attack and in a compact Highbury they used to kettle opponents like G8 protesters, squeezing and pounding them relentlessly. 

Within a minute Wiltord had rammed a loose ball into the net and changed the game's momentum entirely. 

The goal laid the foundation for a glorious comeback, but it was Thierry Henry who grabbed the headlines with an injury time winner. It was quite fitting, because for my money, Wiltord - along with Ray Parlour - was one of the most underrated players in that vintage early noughties Arsenal team. 

Maybe if he hadn't been in a squad with Henry and Bergkamp we might have appreciated him a little more?

He might not have possessed the exuberance of his fellow strikers but his knack for simplicity often meant Wiltord could unlock doors when they were struggling. In a team that often tried to walk the ball into the net, his instinctive one-touch finishing was a valuable alternative. 

Indeed he scored 49 times during his Arsenal career, despite spending much of it behind Bergkamp and Kanu in the queue to partner Henry, or shunted out to the right-wing. Yet many of his goals were crucial.

The one that secured the title at Old Trafford has become a part of Arsenal folklore, but he would go on to score another as we dumped United out of the cup at their place nine months later. A vital goal at a rain-lashed Goodison Park in February 2002, a last-minute equaliser at West Ham later that year are also good examples of his ability to deliver when the team had been backed into corner.

He also loved scoring against Chelsea, coming off the bench to score two against them in the fifth round of the FA Cup in 2001 and grabbing a winner against them on Boxing Day 2001 - but his goal at Stamford Bridge in a 2003 FA Cup replay is one of the most satisfying I have seen as an Arsenal fan. 

Vieira surged down the pitch leaving Lampard and Petit trailing in his wake before Wiltord dispatched the ball with an almost disinterested aplomb. In that moment you almost believed we would have Chelsea under our thumb forever...

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