Classic Encounters: v. West Ham United
Something of a break in tradition today, a classic encounter that we didn`t win. Affairs at Upton Park over the years tend to have been tight and nervy, the 1998 penalty shoot out win in the F.A. Cup comes to mind, a match in which Dennis Bergkamp rearranged Steve Lomas` face, ensuring we played for 100 minutes with ten men. There was a consummate 4-0 win the season after with Nicolas Anelka giving the Boleyn Ground something of a master class. In October 1999 there was the infamous incident in a 2-1 defeat when Patrick Vieira evacuated the contents of his larynx and projectiled them into the general area of Neil Ruddock, whose 88 minute verbal tirade against the hot headed Frenchman fulminated spectacularly, leading to a seven match ban for the future Arsenal skipper. Ruddock`s anti French dictum was not punished. Six months later, Mustapha Hadji was sent off playing for Coventry when he spat at a Derby player. He was given a one match ban.
However, the match I have selected arrived when Arsenal were playing arguably the best stuff they have ever played under the current manager. It was the summer of 2002, Arsenal were fresh from their glorious Double triumph and had just signed a Brazilian World Cup winner. The confidence was albescent. West Ham had come off the back of a respectable campaign in which they had finished 7th, with rising young upstarts such as Joe Cole, Defoe and Carrick; the Academy was very much alive and well. It would end the season bifurcate, with most of the aforementioned going their separate ways following relegation. With Arsenal positively gorging themselves on the compliments meted out by the general public, Arsenal started the match preening themselves, but West Ham`s rambunctious yahoos soon had them licking their wounds. Edu was easily dispossessed in the centre of midfield by Sebastien Schemmel, who moved the ball out wide to Joe Cole on the left hand side. He glided past a soporific Lauren, the Cameroonian full back comfortable allowing Cole to check in on his weaker left foot, only to see Cole curl a precise shot past Seaman from twenty five yards. Such was the aura of invincibility around the club, who had not been beaten since the previous December, few in the away end felt due concern despite Arsenal`s entropy. Parlour and Edu were having poor games, finding themselves over run in the centre of the park, Vieira battling manfully against an industrious Irons midfield.
The feeling of complacency soon gave way to due concern six minutes into the second half, Jermain Defoe burgled an inattentive Ashley Cole of possession on West Ham`s right hand side, the diminutive striker delivered a precise right wing cross, and Fredi Kanoute beat Sol Campbell at the near post to ensure a two goal buffer. Hearts were a flutter. West Ham fans were full of the "oles" as the Irons midfield exchanged passes; Arsenal`s unbeaten run was coming to an end. Carrick`s low drive clipped the post. Arsenal looked lifeless, on 65 minutes, a catalyst exploded. Vieira spun away from Don Hutchison and rolled the ball into Thierry Henry, his back to goal. Henry had barely kicked the ball all game, but in a moment of Herculean inspiration, he flicked the ball up, controlled on his knee, spun 180 degrees before lashing a venomous volley into the top corner to half the deficit. Sixty five minutes of dormant frustration exploded like an igneous rock formation, it showed in Henry`s furious celebration too. "That`s one!" He screamed towards the visiting supporters. Arsenal looked good for an equaliser until the 76th minute, Joe Cole jinked past Toure first, before slaloming past Ashley Cole, a phantom blade of grass robbed him of his balance in the area. The referee was easily bought off by the histrionics and West Ham had a penalty just as Arsenal were gathering a head of steam. Kanoute stepped up, but Seaman outfoxed him, diving the right way to save and gather the penalty. Sol Campbell jumped and punched the air in delight; sensing redemption in the form of parity was still inevitable. It was a telling premonition, with two minutes left; Wiltord fed the ball into Kanu on the eighteen yard line, the Nigerian manfully held off the attentions of Repka and Dailly, allowing Wiltord to run onto the ball and swerve it past David James and into the corner of the net to preserve a last gasp draw. Soon after the celebrations had died down, I realised I had badly dislocated my jaw in the back row of the away end.
Arsenal came within a whisker of winning the match in injury time, Kanu`s telescopic limbs to shield the ball away from Schemmel, before cutting the ball back to Kolo Toure, but his effort clipped the outside of the post and flew wide. In the end a rescued point felt a little like a victory, but it was indicative of how the Arsenal sides under Wenger seldom surrender, even in the most adverse circumstances. With the side two goals down, Wenger was able to unleash Bergkamp and Kanu from the bench and move Wiltord in from the right and initiate wave upon wave of attacks until West Ham were unable to resist any longer. Vieira was at his imperial best, running the midfield single handedly at times in the second half, it was a time when Vieira, Wiltord, Campbell and Henry were all experiencing mutual thresholds of their respective careers. Let`s hope we can speak of Fabregas, Adebayor, Toure and Walcott with similar relish in a few years time.LD.