From the horror at St. Andrews, the title clincher at Old Trafford to Bergkamp’s operational masterclass against Everton, here are six matches of the noughties.
1. Birmingham 2-2 Arsenal: 23 February, 2008
When the fixture computer threw this one up at the start of the season, it was only expecting an innocent encounter. Arsenal entered the lunchtime kick-off game five points ahead of Manchester United and sensed the opportunity to really pull away from the eventual champions. But the last couple of games had indicated the rails were beginning to come off for Arsenal; the mauling by Manchester United in the FA Cup, followed by a disappointing if not entirely unsatisfactory draw against a sluggish Milan side in the Champions League. Team spirit was also breaking apart; Lassana Diarra had left the Gunners without much sympathy, Gilberto Silva had become marginalised due to the Flamini’s impact, and Adebayor and Bendtner’s on-field spat in the 5-1 defeat to Tottenham showed just how tense the side had become as the smell of the Premier League crown drew closer. But that was soon to be tested like no other at St. Andrews.
Only three minutes in and horror struck. Eduardo had shuffled the ball past Martin Taylor and was felled by the defender’s challenge. It looked innocuous enough but the Arsenal players’ reactions said it all. Fabregas with his hands on his forehead; Matthieu Flamini and he hastily gesticulating to the Arsenal physio staff to tender quickly to the pitch. It took seven minutes career (and life) saving minutes to treat the Croatian and in that time the Arsenal players were visibly shaken, Emmanuel Adebayor pacing up and down the other side of the pitch, muttering to himself.
When play resumed, the Gunners looked tentative despite dominating and were dealt a big blow to their title hopes when James McFadden had curled a free-kick in before half-time. The Arséne Wenger team talk had to be it’s best ever and it looked like it worked. Theo Walcott scored a quick-fire a double to put Arsenal in front and from then on in, it should have been plain sailing. But this was no ordinary season and in the last minute, Gael Clichy receiving the ball at the edge of his own area, inexplicably took his eye off the ball and that split second was enough for Stuart Parnaby to make the most out of Clichy’s tackle. The referee pointed to the spot and for one, William Gallas, it was all too much as the captain decided to watch the resulting spot-kick from the halfway line. Adebayor could have had a penalty when he had his shorts unashamedly pulled by Nafti but the referee deemed it not inappropriate to check the contents of Adebayor’s pants. When the final whistle blew, Gallas had to be off the pitch by Wenger, this before damaging the advertising boards in fury. Wenger’s post match interview ensured it didn’t end there. The Frenchman says that football is a fragile sport and in one game, the spirit he had created had been shattered and their title challenge ultimately faded away for another year.
2. Barcelona 2-1 Arsenal: 17 May, 2006
The side story for this match was written earlier in the competition, when against Real Madrid at the Bernabeu, a fan ran on to the pitch to hand Thierry Henry a Barcelona shirt. If Arsenal were to win this game, Henry was sure to pack his bags as he had achieved everything at the club; lose and well, it was likely to be the same outcome. (As it was, Henry decided to stay, in the process missing out on a potentially bigger transfer fee than the £15million they got the next year). In Arsenal’s first Champions League final they were up against a Barcelona side who were at the peak of their powers under Frank Rijkaard and in Ronaldinho, a player who justifiably became player of the decade.
However, the Gunners were dealt a huge blow to their chances when on 18 minutes, Jens Lehmann’s habit of messing things up in finals reared it’s ugly head as he rushed out to bring Eto’o down outside the box. Ludovic Guily preceded to score but the referee had already blown and the German became the first player in the competition to be dismissed in the final. Pires was sacrificed in the cruelest final appearance. But Arsenal didn’t let that get them down, as Eboue fell over the air between Marquez’s knee and him to win them a free-kick. Sol Campbell powered in the header to put them in front. The Gunners had plenty of good chances to win the game but Hleb, Ljungberg and most rueful of all, Henry missed at 1-0 up. As it was, Henrik Larsson came on to sprinkle his magic as he was involved in both goals to turn the tie around.
3. Arsenal 4-2 Liverpool: 9 April, 2004
Arsenal were indebted to this man on countless occasions throughout the decade though possibly none more so important than this match. Liverpool had taken a deserved 2-1 lead at half-time as Arsenal’s unbeaten run was given it’s most realistic threat yet. Thierry Henry’s goal was crucial in settling Arsenal’s nerve in that period and one sensed that this would be one of those days where the club’s top scorer was to be called upon again to inspire his side. And staying true to the feeling, the Frenchman was in catalytic mood scoring a fantastic hat-trick. This was before he set up the second, as by taking up his typical position on the left he created space for Pires to equalise. But a minute he produced the moment of pure brilliance that defined the match. As if he owned the place, Henry didn’t make much effort in getting up the pitch to help the attack but fortunately when the ball did reached him, he set off on an amazing run as the Liverpool defence parted like the Red Sea before tucking the ball past Dudek. When the hat-trick was completed, he made it seem like a formality taken the ball down from Bergkamp’s pass before slotting home. The title may have been presented at White Hart Lane but it was victories like this and the 2-1 win t0 Leicester that won them the league as the remained unbeaten.
4. Manchester United 0-1 Arsenal: 8 May, 2002
Before Arsene Wenger had even in his wildest imaginings, thought of hacking off his closest rivals by claiming his side could go a whole season unbeaten, the best way to do that was to win the title at their own ground. But Ferguson was adamant that that shouldn’t be the case and therefore sent his United side out to clearly ruffle a few feathers. Manchester United were lucky to not receive three red cards in the first half but their ulterior objective ensured they successfully managed to deny the away side a decent sniff at goal. In truth though, Arsenal were never troubled and were able to contain United for the full ninety minutes as Silvain Wiltord’s goal wrapped up the double for the Gunners. Arsenal remained unbeaten away highlighting their resilience and the French striker’s goal ensured they had found the net in all their league games that season.
5. Arsenal 7-0 Everton: 11 May, 2005
You’d have to be Groundskeeper Willie to conclusively prove the Dennis Bergkamp’s intention in video in scoring Arsenal’s greatest goal ever, but at 5 seconds in in this clip, we can attest the only space he could have exploited was to the left of him. It was this type of operational mastery that set the Dutchman apart and his awareness of space ensured he was at the hub of most of Arsenal attacks in the 7-0 mauling of Everton. The third goal sees Bergkamp running into the space in front of the box and as the ball reaches him, he is instantly surrounded by four defenders. But with one flick of the boot, he cuts open the defence and frees Patrick Vieira to chip home. His ability to squeeze and double the size of the pitch set him apart in a generation.
Incidentally in that game, it featured an amalgamation of the Invincibles side and a couple youngsters who were supposedly meant to carry the side through the move to the Emirates. The final irony was that Edu’s penalty (now at Corinthians) was meant to signal pastures new and onward for the Brazilian but Valencia have since been plunged in the red and their future looks bleak.
6. Arsenal 2-0 Juventus: 28 March 2006
It was the match that pitted the former protagonist-in-chief with the new protagonist-in-chief. Many thought Arsenal would struggle after the departure of Patrick Vieira in the centre and for most of the season they were right. Arsenal looked good going forward but lacked the resilience at the back. Wenger saw Europe as an opportunity to breath new life into his charges and decided to switch to a high tempo 4-5-1. The midfielders were detailed to pressure high and in their zones, held together by Gilberto Silva in a compact block and when Arsenal got forward, their synonymous football was still there albeit built round the lone forward of Thierry Henry.
Juventus were never able to get close to Arsenal’s high intensity pressure, culminating in red cards for Jonathan Zebina and Mauro Camoranesi. Vieira was dispossessed of the ball by Robert Pires for the first goal as Cesc Fabregas wrong-footed Gigi Buffon before the Spaniard created the second for Henry. “If you let Fabregas play he can kill a team,” said Henry after the game and for many it represented the changing of the guard for Arsenal. “It wasn’t my target tonight to justify selling Patrick,” said Wenger. “He is a tremendous player and you never lose a player like that without suffering a bit.” Fabio Capello was more frustrated with Arsenal’s tactics, his dictum usually sees teams defend with nine men behind the ball. “It’s difficult to play against a team with 10 players behind the line of the ball,” he said. “There was no space for us.” With Arsenal working hard to deny the opposition space, the team went on the longest run in Champions League history without letting in a goal.