Classic Encounters v. Manchester City
There was a time when a trip to Manchester City pretty much guaranteed a large goal haul for Arsenal. In the Premiership era, Arsenal have only been beaten once in the blue half of Manchester. Other than that, there was a midweek 4-0 victory in April 2001, in which typically laconic City supporters sang, "what`s it like to be outclassed?" throughout. In 2003-04, agent David Seaman`s fumble in the City goal led to a late winner for Freddie Ljungberg in a hard fought 2-1 win at the beginning of the unbeaten season. Eastlands has also been one of the many Premiership grounds lit up by Arsenal`s youngsters back in 2004, a match in which Johan Djourou made his debut and Robin van Persie scored his first Arsenal goal in a 2-1 victory.
However, the match I wish to exude focus on this week comes from the annals of February 2003. The Gunners travelled to Maine Road three points clear at the top of the table. Second placed Manchester United travelled to Bolton for a lunchtime kick off. We sat on the coach pre match, intently listening as Bolton led by a solitary goal for most of the game. Naturally, the referee added an unfeasible amount of stoppage time and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer smashed home a 94th minute equaliser. Our mood dampened by the last minute blow at the Reebok, we made our way through the sloping back alleys into Maine Road and all lingering disappointment was vanquished within minutes. That`s one of the things I love about being in a straight race for position at the end of a league campaign, you don`t just support your own club, but you effectively support anybody that`s playing your rivals too, making otherwise neutral encounters as fraught with tension as any match involving your own team.
However, tension was clearly not the order of the day for this match. Perhaps the team hadn`t heard about United`s late equaliser, but they began the game with beatific ease. After four minutes, the imperious Robert Pires skipped past Richard Dunne to the by-line and pulled the ball back for Dennis Bergkamp to tap in from the six yard line. Four minutes later, Arsenal were two ahead, Pires benefiting from a similar piece of altruism from Sylvain Wiltord, who pulled a neat cross back for Robert Pires to tuck past a cap clad Nicky Weaver. Not yet another four minutes had passed when Arsenal were troubling the score sheet again, a quick long ball from Martin Keown from the edge of his own area was perfectly flighted for Thierry Henry to catch on his knee before surprising Weaver with an early left foot volley into the bottom corner. Weaver was squinting into the sun and unable to take the heat. The Gunners decided to ease up and, being polite visitors, waited seven minutes for their next goal. Pires` corner was met with a fulminating Sol Campbell header.
Both sets of supporters were seeing the bright side in the watery late winter sunshine, for very different reasons. Arsenal fans confident of forthcoming title success would tunefully proclaim that "Fergie`s on the whiskey", whilst City fans shared in our confidence by declaring, "you`re gonna stuff Man Utd." Little did we know a miniature Arsenal collapse was just around the corner. Arsenal finished the half by trying to defend worse than their hosts, presumably to save them some embarrassment, Anelka missing a triumvirate of close range opportunities. (Each time City attacked the man next to me had a very peculiar habit of screaming "nooo!" in the manner of a defeated Bond villain). Early in the second half Arsenal moved into a 5-0 lead, Wiltord and Pires combined to put Patrick Vieira through on goal to slot the ball low past Nicky Weaver. Cries of "Champions" and "Fergie`s on the cyanide" rang out from the away end. Nicolas Anelka grabbed a late consolation with his fiftieth attempt of the game, but by then it didn`t matter, the Champions were in the swing. Little did we know that three months later, Fergie was swapping the whiskey for champagne.LD.