Yet another season. More hopes. More pressure. Season 2008-2009 beckoned for a very youthful Gunners side, which had seen much chop and change over the summer.The Invincibles of 5 years back was now reduced to only Kolo Toure and Gael Clichy, as Jens Lehmann and Gilberto Silva left Arsenal.
Jens Lehmann was somewhat of a cult hero at Arsenal. For all his antics, he was a brilliant custodian. He was immaculate in the 2003-2004 season, and anyone remember the 2005 FA Cup Final, where he single handedly won the trophy! But of course, he had his occasional hiccups, none bigger than the 2006 Champions League Final, where he got sent off, as Arsenal crashed to a 2-1 defeat. Gilberto was the lynchpin of the midfield ever since the departure of Patrick Vieira. He was ever-reliable with his penalties and his tackles, and often scored crucial goals for the Gunners.
Mathieu Flamini and Alexander Hleb descended into footballing wilderness as they moved to AC Milan and Barcelona, supposedly to win silverware, but ended up heating benches on cold nights across Italy and Spain.
Meanwhile, Arsenal dived into the market as the compulsory French recruitment policy was fulfilled with the arrival of Marseille starlet Samir Nasri for £12 million. And there were some local cheer, as North London born and bred Jack Wilshere signed a proffesional contract. More young blood arrived in the form of Wales midfielder Aaron Ramsey, who rejected the advances of Manchester United, and Mexican striker Carlos Vela.
Arsenal started their league campaign as they ripped apart newcomers West Brom 1-0, with debutant Nasri scoring after 4 minutes, before themselves being on the receiving end of a 1-0 drubbing at Fulham. FC Twente were dispatched 6-0 on aggregate as Arsenal entered another season of the Champions League group stages.
Newcastle and Blackburn, beaten 3-0 and 4-0; Arsenal made the long trip to eastern Europe to face Dynamo Kiev;in a game which saw the Kiev left back (I forgot his name, ended with -ev for sure! ) trying to chop down Walcott’s legs. William Gallas scored a late equaliser to secure a 1-1 draw.
An astonishingly young Arsenal side took to the field against Sheffield United in the Carling Cup. The average age of the 18 man squad was just 18.5 years, and they showed no stage fear as they hit Sheffield for a 6. Wilshere and Ramsey were a class act in midfield, as Carlos Vela helped himself to a hattrick.
The Gunners were bought back down to ground few days later, as they crashed to Hull City 2-1 at the Emirates. Geovanni scored from God knows where, in a really drab evening of football.
Emmanuel Adebayor and Robin van Persie looked the perfect strike partnership for Arsenal, as they were consistently among the goals that season, and they took a share of the spoils as Porto were dumped 4-0 at the Emirates. And the European juggernaut rolled on as Fenerbahce were thrashed 5-2 in Turkey under hostile conditions.
The game of the season came few days later as Arsenal faced Tottenham in a pulsating derby. Cunty Spuds took the lead as a traitor David Bentley scored a scorcher. But Arsenal hit back, as the centre backs Mikael Silvestre and Gallas helped themselves to a couple of goals. Adebayor scored off a delightful Nasri chip, before Daren Bent made it 3-2. It seemed Arsenal had sealed the points with van Persie’s goal. But Spuds hit back in amazing fashion, in the dying moments. First, Jenas cut in to shoot a curler, before Luka Modric repeated the same trick;only to hit the post in the path of Aaron Lennon, who gleefully tucked the ball home.
More frustration awaited the Gunners, as they went to Stoke, hoping to face a football team, before they were face to face with a proffessional rugby side. Rugby emerged the winner as Stoke won 2-1 and Arsenal emerged out of the Britannia, and headed straight to the local hospital.
The Premier League champions awaited next at the Emirates for Arsenal. And Samir Nasri announced his arrival on the English scene, as he scored two brilliant goals to hand Arsenal a 2-0 lead. I remember watching the game with one of my best buddies Samarth Kodial, a Manchut in every sense of the word. Rafael scored minutes from time, but Arsenal held their nerve and mine as they clinched the game 2-1.
And when it seemed the United game was a sign of things to come, Aston Villa emerged 2-0 victors day later at the Emirates.It could have been worse, but for a penalty save by Manuel Almunia. Worse came days later as a Robinho-inspired Manchester City brushed aside the Gunners 3-0 at Eastlands.
The troubled times saw a shift of captaincy as Arsene Wenger decided to strip William Gallas of captaincy and midfield maestro Cesc Fabregas was appointed the skipper. And in other news, Niklas Bendtner revealed his metrosexual side, as he flashed his pink boots to score in a win over Dynamo Kiev.Soon, a van Persie brace was to bring more joy to Arsenal as they beat Chelsea 2-1 at Stamford Bridge.
The Wenger kids were ousted of the Carling Cup, on a cold December night in Lancashire, 2-0 to Burnley, before Emmanuel Eboue was booed off against Wigan, after he gave away the ball countless times, in a 1-0 win. Days later, ex-Gunner Jeremie Aliadiere came back to haunt his former emplyers as he scored the equaliser in a 1-1 draw against Middlesbrough. Liverpool dealt more body blows to Arsenal, escaping with a 1-1 draw, as well as injuring Cesc Fabregas and playing a role in Adebayor’s red card.
With Gallas, Clichy, Rosicky, Fabregas, Walcott, van Persie and Adebayor all facing lengthy spells at the physio’s clinic that season for Arsenal, making you wonder if Arsene would give assistant manager Pat Rice some game time.
Speaking of injuries, Zat Knight dealt an injury time blow to Arsenal’s dwindling title hopes, to level the game at 2-2 at Villa Park. Aston Villa gave Arsenal a long and hard chase for fourth place that season.Twin 1-0 wins over Portsmouth and Bolton kept and a 3-1 revenge win over Hull kept Arsenal afloat.
The big story weeks later would be the signing of Russia’s EURO 2008 star Andrey Arshavin from Zenit St. Petersburg for £15 million. Another big story was the return of Eduardo da Silva, Arsenal’s Brazilian born Croatian striker, against Cardiff City in a FA Cup 4th round replay. He scored twice as the Welsh side were beaten 4-0. And in the Premier League, frustration was mounting as Arsenal were held to 5 draws on the bounce against Everton, West Ham, Tottenham, Sunderland and Fulham, the last 4 being goalless.
Europe provided some respite for Arsenal, as they were handed a tricky tie against AS Roma. The first leg was nervously navigated through 1-0, with a van Persie penalty. And an audacious goal by Eduardo against Burnley meant progress in the FA Cup as well.
However the sternest test of Arsenal’s campaign awaited in the Italian capital, Rome, more precisely the hostile atmosphere of the Stadio Olimpico. Roma, were efficient in attack all night, scoring in the 9th minute through Juan and keeping the pressure throughout, only for a certain Manuel Almunia to thwart all attempts. After extra-time the game went to penalties. Eduardo started the spot-kick saga, and his penalty was saved. Soon, Mirko Vucinic had his pathetic shot saved by Almunia. It was 4-4 after regulation spot-kicks and it went to sudden death. Tension around the stadium was unbearable. And finally came the moment. Max Tonneto aimed for the top corner of the goal, but had his shot land up in row Z, and Arsenal were through in stuttering fashion.
The gutsy display in Rome was soon converted to a 4-0 thumping of Blackburn Rovers. Arshavin seemed to have scored the first in the 2nd, but it was credited as an Andre Ooijer own goal. But, the diminutive Russian was not to be denied that evening, as he scored an incredible solo goal from the narrowest of angles.
Hull City provided tougher opposition in the 6th round of the FA Cup, but were beaten 2-1 by a late Gallas header in an ill-tempered game. A poor Newcastle were beaten 3-1 and so were Manchester City 2-0. It set up well for a Champions League quarter final clash with Spanish side Villarreal. 3 years earlier, the El Madrigal had been a scene of joy for the Gunners as a last minute Riquelme penalty was saved and Arsenal went through to face Barcelona in the Champions League final, which they eventually lost.
Villarreal went on the offensive from the word go, eventually taking the lead through a long range effort from Marcos Senna. However, Arsenal went into the second leg with an away goal, as Adebayor scored a brilliant equaliser, completely against the run of play.
The return of the ‘Yellow Submarines’ saw the return of one of Arsenal’s greatest midfielders ever, Robert Pires. However the pleasantries stopped there. Arsenal were unstoppable that night. Walcott opened the scoring with a delicious flick. And Adebayor doubled the lead, as he scored past Diego Lopez, even inspiring a little hop from Mr. Arsene Wenger. van Persie’s penalty sealed a win and a semi-final showdown with Manchester United.
3 days later, Arsenal made the short trip to Wembley, to face London rivals Chelsea in the FA Cup semi-final. Early Arsenal pressure told as Theo Walcott fired the North Londoners into the lead. But, Didier Drogba ghosted upon Arsenal yet again, as he pounced upon a howler from goalkeeper Lukasz Fabianski to score with an open net ahead of him.
The game of the season came 3 days later, on a pulsating night in Liverpool, at Anfield. The game was described as a ‘modern classic’. While Liverpool desperately needed 3 points to keep pushing Manchester United for the title, Arsenal weren’t in much desperation for points but a win would effectively seal 4th place. Both teams created a flurry of chances, before Andrei Arshavin opened the scoring in the 36th minute and the Gunners went into half-time with a 1-0 lead. The second half was a completely different animal from the first. Liverpool hit back with two quick goals through Fernando Torres and Yossi Benayoun. Carragher’s poor pass was tracked down by Arshavin and he let in a peach. And moments later, he completed his hat-trick at Anfield after Nasri put him through. The game got more exciting as Torres brilliantly turned to make it 3-3. It seemed all over for Liverpool’s title challenge, as Walcott made most of a weary defence to unleash the beast in Arshavin as he lashed in for his 4th goal of the night in the 90th minute. Liverpool found the last bit of energy to grab an equaliser, but their title tilt was nearly over.
Games were coming thick and fast for Arsenal, and after a 3-0 win over Middlesbrough, they made a daunting trip to Old Trafford. The game was one of the dullest I watched, as both teams failed to show up. But, United scored the winner in the 18th minute through John O’Shea. Optimism was high around the Emirates for Arsenal fans, for the second leg. However, soon Park Ji-Sung capitalised on a slip by young Kieran Gibbs in the 8th minute to hand United the lead. You had to feel for the boy. United showed their class, 3 minutes later, as Ronaldo unleashed a rocket of a free-kick. And passage to the final was sealed by Ronaldo again, in the 61st minute, taking advantage of flak defending. Robin van Persie’s penalty was a mere consolation as Arsenal lost 3-1, making it their second semi-final loss of the season.
Chelsea heaped misery as they ran out 4-1 winners over a beleaguered Arsenal team. Days later, another trip to Old Trafford, saw United picking up a point and the title. And the campaign was rounded off with a 4-1 dead-rubber win over Stoke.
Nearly there, but not quite. That was the story of another trophyless season for Arsenal. Despite the mounting injury list, Arsenal managed a 21 game unbeaten run in the Premier League and a run to the semi-finals of the FA Cup and Champions League.
That made enough case for optimism for Gooner fans world around.
Jai Arsenal 🙂
Premier League – 4th place
FA Cup – Semi-Finals
Carling Cup – Quarter Finals
Champions League – Semi-Finals
Top Scorer – Robin van Persie (20 goals in all competitions)