The Best Matches Ever Part 9
You might forgive me for cheating slightly here, really this game is a hybrid of two matches. But given the immeasurable quality of both, together with the tear jerking elation, you'll forgive me for annexing the two together! I will focus on the first one briefly, by way of background and context more than anything. Having won our Champions' League group with consummate ease, Arsenal were drawn against the might of Real Madrid. As the game loomed, Arsenal were in some indifferent league form. Recent defeats to West Ham and Bolton in the Cup, followed by a spluttering draw at home to the Orcs left the Gunners' out of all other cups and sitting eighth in the league. The task appeared impossible. The day before the match my friends and I went on the Bernebeu stadum tour and after taking a full hour merely to plod through the trophy room, few held out much hope.
But following a sensational Henry solo effort, the Gunners' came back to London with a fully deserved 1-0 victory. Young Fabregas consummately outshone footballing adonis Zidane. Travelling Gooners' (there were probably more dotted around the stadium in the home section than the 3,000 of us crammed into the away end) celebrated long and hard into the chilly February night. We found an Irish bar opposite our hotel happty to host a Gooner lock in and swell their tills. Possibly one of the greatest nights of my life ended when the Kaiser Chiefs 'Oh My God' struck up on the jukebox. A completely impromptu conga line began, sombreros and all, with a crowd of us drunkenly slurring, 'Oh My God I can't believe it, we've never been this good away from home.' Having already lost away games that season, our drunken sentiment was hardly innacurate!
But the initial euphoria of the first leg evaporated as Madrid came to Highbury. A Real goal would have effectively wiped out our advantage, and with Raul, Ronaldo, Zidane, Roberto Carlos and David Beckham bolstering the Madrid ranks, a harmless free kick could have had us all crying into our sangrias. Arsenal stuck with the 4-5-1 formation that had brought (not bought Chelsea fans) us success in Spain. With the likes of Reyes, Ljungberg and Fabregas attacking and defending as a unit. Arsenal should have cemented their advantage in the opening minutes, Alex Hleb found Henry in space on the left, his low cross found Jose Reyes, but his close range effort rattled the crossbar in front of the Clock End. Just two minutes later, the decidedly chunky Ronaldo bore down on the Arsenal goal but was thwarted by Jens Lehmann.
With the score still goalless at half time, tension filled the air at a heaving Highbury. Madrid pressed on in the second half and had the Gunners' on the ropes. On the hour mark, they nearly made their territorial domination count. Raul Gonzalez picked up Zidane's pass and curled a precise shot onto the inside of the post. My heart sank as just yards away from me the rebound fell perfectly for the Spanish international captain, his follow up swung towards goal with Lehmann seemingly stranded, but the German sprung to his feet and desperately thrust out an arm, brushing it with his fingertips as it sailed agonisingly past the post. The stadium sprang to its feet in appraisal. What made the save so unbelievable was that it seemigly defied the laws of physics, with the ball arrowing towards the net, Lehmann was facing his own goal, any touch from the eccentric stopper should surely have simply helped the ball into the net? It was a save that might just have equalled David Seaman's gravity defying heroics against Sheffield United and one that would give Messrs Hawkins, Newton and Archimides cause to re evaluate.
Arsenal were jerked into life, inspired by Lehmann's heroics. Casillas brilliantly beat out an Henry curler. And when the Madrid keeper ventured foward for a corner, Arsenal broke and Pires sent a sixty yard effort rolling towards goal, the adjacent North Bank collectively inhaling in an attempt to suck the ball into the goal, but old thunder thighs himself Roberto Carlos impeded the ball's progress with two yards to spare. Madrid piled forward as the last five minutes yawned desperately by. Every Arsenal clearance was greeted with a massive cheer, before Highbury held its breath again. Beckham slung in a last gasp cross which Kolo Toure hacked away with the sort of regard one would usually reserve for somebody who was trying it on with your missus. The final whistle sounded and Highbury simply erupted. Having the good sense to adopt Arsenal as my team has meant that I've been fortunate enough to witness a fair few Cup Finals, victories at that. But I have never heard a final whistle greeted with such delight. Most clutched their neighbour in a fierce embrace, some simply stood their stunned, unable to absorb the magnitude of it all. I used to sit in Row 4 in the Clock End and on Chmpions' League nights, the first three rows would be removed. This meant I had a good few yards in front of me in which to exercise my constituional right to go bloody ballistic. With game finishing goalless, 90 minutes of tension and fretting and hope and despair were released in an instant. But it was not just the result that warrants this game's inclusion in my series, but it was the genuine quality of the match itself. Ruud Gullit proclaimed it to be the best 0-0 ever and its hard to disagree. Pires, Henry, Fabregas, Raul, Zidane, Ronaldo; the greatest players of my generation all fighting over the same turf. You may or may not have noticed I usually try and conclude articles with a flowery, poetic ending. But for this game, put simply, it was just two great teams, full of great players, going toe to toe and at full tilt whilst always observing the correct spirit. The fact that we got the result made it that little bit sweeter though didn't it?LD.