The 2005-2006 season brings back some amazing memories to me. The final farewell to a legend of English league Football, i.e The Arsenal Stadium, Highbury; the red-currant kit, the final season of the Dutch master Dennis Bergkamp and some more of the usual nitty-gritty of the season, which I will take you through in this post.
Club captain, and a towering influence in Arsenal’s midfield for 9 years, Patrick Vieira left for The Old Lady of Turin, supposedly to win the Champions League. Well, no disrespect to the legend, but all he got there was relegation to Serie-B, after the great Italian match-fixing scandal of 2006. Patrick left some great memories, arriving as a raw 19 year old in 1996, to replace the erratic Eddie McGoldrick, forming a strong midfield with compatriot Emmanuel Petit, hence contributing the the double success of the 1997-1998 season. His constant tussles with Manchester United skipper Roy Keane, were legendary, and Vieira had the last laugh as he took the decisive penalty in the 2005 FA Cup Final.
His greatest and most significant contribution, however was captaining the Gunners in their unbeaten and non-blotted campaign of 2003-2004, where they ruled the league with an iron fist, and a swagger unmatched.”RESPECT“.
The Community Shield was lost 2-1 to the billionaires of West London and then Arsenal’s last season at Highbury began with the visit of Newcastle, Henry scoring and celebrating with the ‘T’ sign, signifying the name of his newborn daughter.
A loss to Chelsea followed, with Drogba’s shin scoring the unlikeliest of goals, after bullying Phillipe Senderos throughout the game. Stop-start season continued, with a win against Fulham, where the legendary Pascal Cygan scored a brace and then a 2-1 reverse to Middlesbrough.
Speaking of Pascal Cygan, he was the most comical footballer I have seen. He was so weirdly built, like a blob of baldness over a clumsy body. He didnt have pace, no guile, no agility. He had height, which he used to good effect, against strikers, to usually score into his own net!! Boy, he was a calamity, and the one to press the self-destruct button on a usual basis; and without a shadow of doubt, one of the worst players to put on the Arsenal shirt!! Here’s to Pascal ‘Zinedine’ Cygan!
More dissapointments followed, with a 2-1 loss at West Bromwich Albion. Anyways things looked bright in Europe, as Arsenal seemed dominant in their group, as they beat FC Thun of Switzerland and Ajax Amsterdam, Dennis Bergkamp scoring a sublime winner against FC Thun!!
Thierry Henry raced past Ian Wright’s club record of 185 as he scored a brace in a chilly night in Prague.
Arsenal were all rounded over the mercurial Frenchman’s exploits that season, as a seemingly underperforming Arsenal lost 3 games on the bounce, against Bolton, Newcastle and Chelsea, confirming the demise of Arsenal’s title challenge that season.
On the bright side, Arsenal mocked all penalty taking norms, as Robert Pires stepped up to take a penalty against Manchester City. His run-in looked decisive. However, he stopped and then looked to pass it to Henry. However, Henry wasn’t ready, and City cleared the ball only for an embarrassed Pires to give a wry smile to the cameras. It mattered little in the end, as Pires’ earlier spot-kick had landed the 3 points. Robin van Persie scored a stunning goal against Blackburn, beating 3 defenders in his wake to slot the ball past a hapless keeper. Was it the arrival of a new Dutch master?
Meanwhile, the Carling Cup seemed a kind of escape from the stuttering league campaign. Or was it??Drawn to Doncaster Rovers, Arsenal seemed on the verge of exit, as they trailed 2-1 after 120 minutes. Cometh the crunch, cometh the man, as Gilberto Silva snatched a late-late equalizer to take the game to penalties; where Manuel Almunia (yes, you heard right) proved to be the hero, as Arsenal narrowly avoided some really giant-killing!!
Wigan was next up in the League Cup semi-finals. The Lactics had already proved to be somewhat of a force in the Premier League, as they had notched up some valiant performances in their first season in the top flight, starting the season with a 93rd minute loss to a Hernan Crespo goal in a game against the billionaires of West London. They beat Arsenal 1-0 at the JJB Stadium, a game best remembered for a lowly turnout and a power failure in the area. Two weeks later, they completed the job at Highbury, even though Arsenal won 2-1, on away-goals rule.
Middlesbough proved to be cannon fodder and were brushed by a rampant Arsenal 7-0 at Highbury, with Henry helping himself to a hat-trick. Well, then started a miserable run for Arsenal, as they lost to a physical Everton at the Goodison, got knocked out of the FA Cup to Bolton, a 2-3 humiliation at home to newly promoted West Ham, a late 1-1 draw again at Bolton, culminating in a heartbreaking 87th minute goal in a 1-0 loss at Anfield. The season looked to on a downward spiral, and Arsenal had to do something about it.
Arsenal were riddled with injuries, to the defensive team of Lauren, Sol Campbell, Ashley Cole and Gael Clichy. The only lynchpin at the back was Ivorian Kolo Toure, who with Phillipe Senderos, had formed a formidable centre-back pairing in Europe. Sebastien Larsson and Pascal Cygan were both roped in as emergency left-backs, but the injury crisis mounted and Mathieu Flamini, a right-footed defensive midfielder, was played at left-back for most of the remainder of the season. Emmanuel Eboue had been a revelation at right-back with his marauding runs into the opposition’s penalty area.
Next in line was a trip to the Santiago Bernabeu, to play the ‘Los Galacticos’, Real Madrid’s expensively assembled galaxy of stars; comprising of stalwarts such as Zidane, Ronaldo, Carlos, Casillas and Guti. Notice I have discounted a certain David Beckham here.
The Spanish media were already discussing by how many goals Real Madrid would plunder the Gunners. Were they wrong or what?Arsenal started with a flurry if chances. Jose Antonio Reyes, nearly scoring an opener upon his return to his homeland. Fabregas and Hleb were brillilantly spraying passes and keeping the game well in control. And then, in the 47th minute, Henry picked the ball from near the half-line, and left quite a few defenders in his wake, before calmly slotting the ball past Iker Casillas. The scoreboard had read Real Madrid 0-1 Arsenal (Reserves, literally) The stars huffed and puffed, but at the end , it was Arsenal’s young guns, who came away from the Spanish capital, with a vital 1-0 lead to carry to the second leg at Highbury.
Arsenal started the second leg, with the same Madrid-conquering side, while Real drafted in local boy cum hero Raul, into the starting line-up to multiply firepower. Real came close on several occasions, only to be denied by the German superman Jens Lehmann. Arsenal’s resolve was testified by Kolo Toure, who took a blow to his body as he blocked a Roberto Carlos freekick from close range. Towards the end, Real were so desperate they threw everybody forward, including the keeper, and almost resulted in a second goal for Arsenal, as Robert Pires, shot from half-way, only to be halted by a sprinting Roberto Carlos. All’s well that ends well, Arsenal secured passage to the next round, and now had to face Italian giants Juventus.
Meanwhile, Arsenal slowly picked up on the domestic front, with wins over Liverpool(thanks to a brilliant backpass from Steven Gerrard), Charlton and a 5-0 drubbing of David O’Leary’s Aston Villa.
Juventus visited North London on 28th March, and Patrick Vieira got a standing ovation from the Arsenal faithful. It seemed for large amounts of the game, Juventus had taken the game very lightly, with press remarks from Lilian Thuram stating that they would destroy Arsenal. And they had every reason to think so. They had the world’s best goalkeeper; and the costliest one as well, Gianluigi Buffon, a towering defence comprising the likes of Fabio Cannavaro, Lilian Thuram and Gianluca Zambrotta, an experienced midfield of Vieira and Emerson; and a devastating strike force of Mutu, Trezeguet and Ibrahimovic. Unfazed in no sense, Arsenal dominated the game, with Fabregas playing like a seasoned professional, as he went about the task of going up against his mentor, Vieira. He scored with a sublime shot past Buffon in the 40th, truely announcing his arrival on the European stage, before Thierry Henry scored a brilliant winner in the 69th. The Old Ladies were down 2-0. So much for destroying us, Juve fell to pieces, and Camaronesi and Zebina were sent off, as the 9 men prevented further damage.
The return leg was more of a formality for Arsenal, as they comfortable eked out a 0-0 draw, against Juve, who had drafted in the Czech playmaker Pavel Nedved. Arsenal’s dismal home campaign had continued with a 2-0 loss at Old Trafford and a disspointing draw away to Portsmouth. However, Dennis Bergkamp scored a delicios flick in a 3-1 win over West Brom, on Dennis Bergkamp day, a day dedicated to the Dutchman, whose class had lit up the English game, for a decade.
The Champions League semi-finals beckoned, and surprisingly the opposition was no Milan, Inter or Bayern, but a small provincial club from Spain, Villarreal. The club had seen a phenomenal rise in Spanish football, and were now in the semi’s after ousting Inter. ‘The Yellow Submarines’ had some fine players in their ranks, including Argentina captain Juan Pablo Sorin; former Manchester United striker Diego Forlan, who had transformed his career in Spain, and become the top scorer in the Spanish League;Juan Roman Riquelme, the Argentine midfield schemer, at the moment, considered the world’s best; Brazilian born Marcos Senna, who represented Spain, and was known for his long range goalscoring skills; and Juventus veteran Alessio Tacchinardi.
The last game under floodlights, and the last European fixture at Highbury, and it couldn’t get bigger than a Champions League semi-final. Arsenal had fielded nearly the same side that had ousted the giants of Madrid and Turin. The game was mostly end-to-end stuff, with both teams creating opportunities. Chants of ‘Squirrel is a Gunner’ and ‘There’s only one squirrel’ to the tune of ‘There’s only one Dennis Bergkamp’ filled the historic stadium, as a little lost squirrel ambled on to the Highbury pitch, for its only Arsenal appearance. Kolo Toure scored the only goal in the game as he poked in a Hleb low cross for Arsenal to take a 1-0 advantage to the yellow-drenched part of Spain.
Arsenal were 4 points behind Tottenham, and uncomfortably in 5th place, as the two sides geared up for the last North London derby at Highbury. A win here, would put the Gunners within 1 point off a Champions League playoff place, and a game in hand, but a loss would all but end all of Arsenal’s hopes of a top 4 finish.On a bright afternoon, the Scum scored one of the most unsportsmanlike goal, ever witnessed at Highbury. Eboue collided with Gilberto, the former requiring treatment. Michael Carrick, who was scum then, and still is now, got hold of the ball, and passed it to Edgar Davids, who then provided a simple tap-in for Robbie Keane. Arsenal were furious at this point, but the game had to go in. Adebayor and Henry combined to set up Arsenal’s equaliser on a frustrating afternoon. Arsenal were still 4 points behind, and required Spurs to slip up against either Bolton or West Ham, to finish 4th.
Meanwhile, Arsenal knew that winning the Champions League would also seal a place for next years competition, and a name in the history books. The return league at Villarreal, would be no simple task, as the Spanish team had a formidable record at home. And they did dominate most of the game, and probably deserved the win. But there was no denying Arsenal that night. Or was there?Substitute, Gael Clichy, who came on after Flamini suffered a knock, was softly adjudged to have bought down Jose Mari. Riquelme stepped up to take the penalty. And all the time, I knew he would miss it. He was sweating profusely, the game having taken a mental as well as a physical toll on one of the most astute minds of the game. He was spitting constantly, trying to be calm. But his weak shot was brilliantly parried by the German giant Jens Lehmann. And that’s that. Arsenal became the first club from London to play a Champions League Final.
The outpouring of emotions at the end, Arsene Wenger doing a fist celebration, with Pat Rice, still brings tears to my eyes. Thierry Henry was simply ecstatic, as the Arsenal players mobbed Jens Lehmann, who had kept 10 fucking clean sheets, and broke Milan’s previous measly record of 7, and couple that with a defence crippled with injuries, against opposition the likes of Real Madrid, Juventus and Villarreal. It was an amazing night.
Next up??FC Barcelona. Ronaldinho. Samuel Eto’o. Xavi. Iniesta. Deco. Giuly. Henrik Larrsson. Referee. Linesman. etc. Anyways, that apart Arsenal had a job in hand in the league, and that was to qualify for the Champions League, by finishing 4th.
Arsenal secured 3-0 and 3-1 wins away to Sunderland and Manchester City respectively, and last day of the season, and last game at Highbury, they needed 3 points against Wigan Athletic, and hoped that Spurs lost to West Ham United. Mind games had already started, Arsene Wenger stating that West Ham Couldn’t win the final, if they didn’t beat Spurs, as it would cause a psychological effect, and all that stuuff that goes with it.
The day was perfect. The sun was shining brightly on the Highbury pitch. And, I had missed the first 30 minutes of the game, thanks to my stupid PUC tuitions. Anyways, it was Arsenal 1-2 Wigan. Man, why did Wigan have to come and spoil the party??Oh bother, onto the game stepped messrs Thierry Henry, as he equalised in the 35th minute, and Arsenal went in to half-time at 2-2. Meanwhile, in another part of London, some portly dude called Carl Fletcher had given West Ham the lead against cunty Spuds.Talk of injustice, Spurs had half their team down due to food poisoning , and had asked the Premier League to delay the game. However, this plea was rejected, becasue of West Ham’s upcoming FA Cup Final and the game went ahead as was scheduled.Surely, the chef was a Gooner, wasn’t he??
Meanwhile, the final 45 minutes of football at Highbury began, with Arsenal still needing 3 points. Henry duly obliged, as he rounded keeper Pollitt to calmly slot the goal to make it 3-2. Meanwhile, over at The Boleyn, Defoe had equalised for Spurs, and former Spud and cunt Teddy Sheringham had missed a penalty to put West Ham ahead.(Everyone knew he was going to miss it.) Anyways, in North London, it seemed like a fairytale ending was in the script as Andreas Johansson bought down fellow Swede Freddie Ljungberg, in the box and Arsenal had a penalty. Fittingly, Arsenal’s greatest ever player, Thierry Henry, takes it and scores, and celebrates by kissing the penalty spot in front of the North End. And, its St. Totteringham’s day, as an Israeli of all people, Yossi Shai Benayoun, scores the winner for West Ham. Highbury erupts, well knowing that Arsenal have got the better of Spuds yet again.
10 days ahead, Paris was the centre of the world, as Arsenal and Barcelona faithful converged in on the showpiece event of European football, the final of the Champions League. This was Barcelona’s 4th time in the final, winning once against Sampdoria at Wembley in 91/92. And, this was the first time Arsenal had won the right to be in a Champions League final.I myself remember, waiting in anticipation for the final. I knew Barcelona were the favourites, as they had two world superstars, in the peak of their careers. But, Arsenal had the meanest defence in Europe, now fortified with the return of England duo Sol Campbell and Ashley Cole.It was ‘The Irresistible Force’ against ‘The Immovable Object’.
As the two teams, walked out side by side, with the trophy they were playing for in the centre, I remember praying for an Arsenal win. I knew every Gunner in the world,was too, in silent prayer. The game began, with Barcelona employing smart tactics and playing Ronaldinho in the centre and Eto’o on the left. Arsenal nearly scored with Thierry Henry clear, only for Valdes to pull off a diving save. Jens Lehmann, Arsenal’s hero through the European campaign turned from hero to villain in the 18th minute, as he bought down Samuel Eto’o. Barcelona’s 12th man, namely the referee Terje Hauge, rendered a massive blow by sending off the German, even though Arsenal insisted him to let off the German with a yellow and award a penalty to Barca.Off went Lehmann, though; and so did Robert Pires, who was sacrificed for Manuel Almunia.
Barca went on a rampage of attacks, capitalizing on their numbers advantage, but were kept in check by Arsenal’s defence. And in the 37th minute, the unlikeliest of goals from the unlikeliest of players, as Sol Campbell’s thumping header of a Henry free kick gave Arsenal the lead. I was delirious, jumping around the house at 1 AM!!
Arsenal seemed all set for victory as they controlled the game exceptionally, before Barca sent on Henrik Larsson, who first teed up Samuel Eto’o, who was clearly offside; but Barcelona’s 13th player, the linesman, said he wasn’t. And so, ended the over-900 minutes of football without conceding. And Larsson drew the final nail in the coffin, as he set up Juliano Belleti to score 5 minutes from time. I remember myself, nearly in tears at that point of time, as I knew there was no back. Barcelona knew it. Arsenal knew it. So, did the fans know it. And, so did Wenger. He bought on Reyes, for one final roll of the dice, but Arsenal were too deflated at that point. And so it ended Barcelona’s 13 2-1 Arsenal’s 10.
As Barcelona lifted the trophy, it had me wondering me if Thierry Henry would be tempted by that and soon leave for Barca, as he had been courted wildly by them. In gazillions of interviews, and newspaper reports, ‘Henry to leave Arsenal for Barca’ was the constant. How I had wished, for Arsenal to enter their new home as European champions. Sigh, it was not to be.
This season, of so many highs and so many lows, with so many heart-stopping moments, fuelled my love for the Gunners. To be part of unparalleled joy at 3 points, and to be heartbroken at the end of an epic European campaign, was an amazing Arsenal experience.
Jai Arsenal 🙂
Premier League – 4th place
FA Cup – Fourth Round
Carling Cup – Semi Finals
Champions League – Runners Up
Top Scorer – Thierry Henry (33 goals in all competitions)