The Best Matches Ever Part 7
You knew it was coming right? This is match that has gone down in Arsenal folklore as our finest European hour since Anderlecht in 1970. But while the magnitude of the scoreline will live long in the collective memory, few recall the significance of it with any gusto. The Gunners' had amassed a sparse one point from their opening three Champions' League group games, and with a minute left against Dynamo Kyiv on Matchday four, the Gunners' looked to be heading out in a frustrating 0-0 draw. But Ashley Cole's last minute header gave the Gunners' a lifeline. But defeat in the Giuseppe Meazza stadium against the might of Inter on Matchday Five, would see another early knockout for the Gunners.
I arrived in Milano on the afternoon of the game to find the city swept with torrential rain which had persisted for four days in the build up. Upon meeting some friends in a Milanese bar we were informed that a pitch inspection would take place at 6pm. The omens did not look good. Arriving at the stadium, I was struck by the four beacons in every corner of the San Siro, making it visible for miles around. Unlike Roma and Juventus' soulless concrete arenas, this was a stadium of character and originality. We made our way to the stadium some two hours before kick off. In Europe, they operate a system whereby you sit in the seat of your choosing, so the earlier you arrive, the better your seat. Secondly, sat in the lower tier, we had heard stories of Inter fans penchant for vomiting and urinating on the away support gathered below. Understandably, we were keen to get underneath the roof! The travelling support was in good voice hours before kick off, with an impromptu conga line snaking around the steep away section to the tune of 'Arsene Wenger's red army.'
The Gunners' began the match bereft of their first choice midfield pairing. Vieira was sidelined with a knee injury and Gilberto Silva was fit enough only for a palce on the bench. Ray Parlour and Edu would have their work cut out in central midfield. But the Gunners' began positively and snatched a 25th minute lead. Cole and Pires once again demonstrated their telepathy, linking up on the left, before Cole pulled back for Henry on the edge of the area and Henry despatched a low side foot shot into the bottom corner. But in the immediate aftermarth of the goal, Henry appeared to complain of a tight hamstring and his output would be minimal for another hour or more. But Inter would peg the courageous visitors back eight minutes later, Christian Vieiri's left foot shot took a wild deflection off of Sol Campbell's outstretched limb and looped over Jens Lehmann. Vieiri was embroiled in a frosty relationship with the Inter fans at the time and had pledged not to celebrate his goals anymore. A moon faced pout was all he could muster. It was a cruel twist, but the goal bore more than a passing resemblance to Freddie Ljungberg's winner versus Tottenham some three days previous.
The atmosphere amongst the Gooners' at half time was somewhat despondant. Our lead had been wiped out before we had had a chance to consolidate and few believed we would weather the incoming Inter storm in the second half. But after just 48 minutes, the Gunners' reassumed the ascendancy. Henry teased the Inter full back, before relaeasing a low cross, Freddie Ljungberg crept in under Materazzi's radar to prod the ball in at the front post. Stood behind the goal, we were convinced Ljungberg was offside (subsequent replays would prove he wasn't), but we hardly concerned ourselves with that, the celebrating contingent tumbled forward in acclaim. The seats in most Italian stadiums have no backs, causing a retro terrace like surge whenever a goal is scored. From there on, the Gunners' clung on for dear life. Edu and Parlour became auxiliary centre halves, with Vieiri and Martins pressing Campbell and Toure. Gilberto replaced Kanu on the hour mark, leaving a half fit Henry upfront alone. 'We can't hold on' I repeatedly remarked. With all of the action taking place at the other end of the ground, we craned our necks and breathed heavily with tension as Inter pressed and pressed. A young Italian trader skulked through the terraces selling refreshments, including some decidedly suspicious coffee liquors. The trader in question must have put his children through college with the money he was making from my particular entourage!
With six minutes remaining, Inter forced a succession of corners, Materazzi dived desperately under Campbell's aerial challenge, but the match official was having none of it. Gilberto pumped the ball clear and suddenly Hnery had the ball on the half way line, confronted only by Cannavaro. Henry pushed the ball ahead of him and chased it down ravenously. Having strode to the edge of the Inter penalty area, Henry stopped and checked back, 'oh nooo, the chance has gone now' one of my friends remarked. Thierry had other ideas, pushing the ball back past Cannavaro and unleashing a low left foot shot into the net. The banks of the away end in the San Siro nearly burst with an outpouring of relief and delight, it looked the archetypal smash and grab victory.
But Arsenal had not finsihed there, Parlour's arced ball down the right hand side found Henry, his pass searched narrowly missed Pires in the penalty area, but the ball found Edu on the back post who tucked away a tidy finish. The goal was significant as it put us beyond Inter in the 'head to head' stakes and all but vanquished the memory of a 3-0 thrashing at Highbury. Henry was promptly removed, his tight hamstrings burning with lactic acid. But it did not prevent Arsenal scoring again just sixty seconds later. Aliadiere this time ran onto an Arsenal clearance, and was afforded time to pull the ball back to Robert Pires. His first effort was saved, but he piled the rebound untidily into the net for a fifth. Three goals in the space of three minutes had not given us sufficient time to conclude finishing one goal before another promptly arrived. It was a dizzying experience.
The final whistle went and the acclaim for the Arsenal side was raucous. The Italian police insisted on penning us into the away end for a good hour and a half after the match had finished. In fact, most of us had a tense run to make the last metro of the evening! But that hour and a half was magical, with a cavalcade of songs. I have a vivid memory of surveying the faces around me shortly after the final whistle, the facial expressions were akin to those one would expect to see at an underground rave. Eyes dilated suspesnion of disbelief. 'Eyes roll back and jaws fall open' as Mike Skinner phrased it, grown men, hoarse from shouting and riddled with caffeine had the expression of a small child opening the Christmas present they were praying for. Making our way out of the single entrance in the away enclosure, we walked through the seats towards the front of the lower tier and were met with clear signs of vomit and tipped over, half empty bottles of urine littered on the concrete steps. It seems the Inter fans in the upper tier were keen to maintain their reputation as unwelcoming hosts! When we were eventually let out of the stadium, we found ourselves a quiet Italian restaurant, happy to cater for the wallets of celebrating Gooners by staying open into the wee small hours. But far from getting hammered, on occasions such as these one is already drunk with euphoria and we elected to nurse our overly priced bottled beer and simply recount what we had witnessed, unable to absorb the magnitude of it all. Always one with a cautionary note, I warned anyone who would listen that we were not yet through, we still had to defeat Lokomotiv Moscow at Highbury to ensure progression. The reply I was met with, 'oh come on, if Barca or Madrid had beaten Inter 5-1 tonight, do you honestly believe they would blow it at home to Lokomotiv?' That's when it struck me, that was the company Arsenal were keeping now. The North London derby four days earlier suddenly seemed minor in comparison.LD.