Blackburn Rovers: Classic Encounter
You'll never guess what? It's only another series. The twenty questions series has become overly loquacious and a bit of a drag, so in its stead stand a weekly intake of nostalgia as I look at classic encounters involving the mighty Arsenal and their next opponents. (May be tricky in a fortnight when we play Hull City). Ewood Park has been a hunting ground of fickle fortune over the years, a spellbinding 3-2 win in a pendulous game in January 2002 that put Arsenal on their way to the title and a Thierry Henry masterpiece in 2007 feature amongst the highlights. Contrarily a meek surrender in March 2003 was portent of our subsequent collapse in a title race we were cruising.
Instead I have chosen to journey back to April 1998. Fresh from a 5-0 mauling of Wimbledon at Highbury on Easter Saturday, whilst title rivals Manchester United limped to a 1-1 draw at home to Newcastle, the Gunners travelled to Lancashire at the zenith of their form. Dennis Bergkamp was at his beatific best with baroque football, Nicolas Anelka was emerging as a young virtuoso and the partnership of Petit and Vieira was establishing itself as a genuine powerhouse of English football. Meanwhile, over in Manchester, Roy Keane was confined to the treatment table and a retired Eric Cantona was still casting a shadow over Old Trafford. Ewood Park became a stunned seance as swaggering Arsenal took the lead inside 90 seconds. Ray Parlour slipped a cute slide rule pass to Dennis Bergkamp and the Dutch master duly despatched with a low piledriver. Bergkamp was often admired for his finesse, but the goal exemplified his intelligent application of brute force. Andy Gray once used a phrase in describing a similarly applied finish against Manchester United. 'Exactly what was required.' That was what made Dennis such an awesome player, if the situation called for a piece of balletic conjury he would deliver. If bestial power was needed to get the job done, he would have at it.
Speaking of balletic conjury, Ray Parlour was soon in on the act. The Gunners won a corner, Petit's thinking was cute as he pulled his corner back low to the edge of the area, Bergkamp applied the hammer again, arrowing a low shot goalwards, which was beaten out by Tim Flowers, only for Ray Parlour to happily convert the rebound. The away side were sauntering through the Rovers defence like a freight train, Wenger's dietary methods were bearing fruit as Arsenal's superior fitness was telling late in the season. The Arsenal machine had been built to last. It would only be another four minutes for Arsenal to put the result beyond doubt, Bergkamp repaid Parlour's earlier slide rule pass with a deft through ball of his own. The Romford Pele manuovered himself into the ball's sleek path and made like Dennis, putting his foot behind the ball and smashing it beneath Tim Flowers. Blackburn were shellshocked as the visitors set about velvetly stroking the ball around and conserving energy by playing the game out.
After 29 minutes without their goalnet being attacked, Blackburn had the temerity to attack, much like a rabbit peering tentatively from behind a bush, confident the fox has given up the ghost. Rovers agitated the Gunners rearguard by winning a corner, which was cleared. Winterburn picked up the loose ball and lofted a beautiful flighted ball (you see under Wenger, it's a beautiful flighted ball, under Graham it would have been an ugly punt) into the Rovers half which the wing heeled teenager Anelka raced onto. Easily outstripping Jeff Kenna for pace, Anelka made a beeline for goal, shimmying past Tim Flowers and effortlessly prodding the ball into the net. Vieira and Petit's symbiosis was easily repelling the Rovers resrugence in the second half, though Kevin Gallagher managed a consolation long after the crowd's interest had piqued. A Lazarus style comeback was less likely than a Tottenham league title, though the heavens tired in vain to usurp Arsenal's majestic dominance and a snowstorm ensued. Maybe it was the weather's way of stepping in to intervene the slaughter. The truth is, it would have taken the apoclypse itself to stop Arsenal at that point. Even then, I'm sure the four horseman would have just fallen into the back four's offside trap.LD.