Game of the Noughties
In the 21st Century, Arsenal have undergone cosmetic surgery and recarved their niche as the most entertaining football side around, therefore picking the game of the noughties is an incredibly tough ask- though one I am determined not to shrink from! When I talk about the game of the noughties, my conditions are the most entertaining, enthralling and absorbing 90 minutes of action Arsenal has seen. So while the league wins at Old Trafford and White Hart Lane were of course monumental occasions because of what they symbolised, they do not feature. Arsenal have made a habit in the last ten years of racking up fives, sixes and sevens in individual games. Who could forget the pendulous North London derby at White Hart Lane on November 2004, which Arsenal eventually won 5-4? The youngsters impressive 6-3 dismantlement of Liverpool at Anfield in Janaury 2007. Being 2-0 down away to Bolton with ten men before storming back to 3-2 and ramming the insidious "2-0 and you fucked it up!" chants back down Lancastrian throats. Both Everton and Middlesbrough left Highbury soundly spanked 7-0. The game that, for me, would make it to 2nd place in the game of the noughties, would be the epic 0-0 draw between Arsenal and Real Madrid at Highbury. A game that had everything in it bar a goal, two sets of globally acknowledged footballing names, going tooth and nail with Arsenal holding a slender 1-0 advantage from the 1st leg. Casillas` outrageous stop from an Henry curler, Lehmann`s even more gravity defying save from Raul, Pires` last minute attempt from the half way line with Casillas committed which crawled agonisingly towards the goal line but with not quite enough puff to outpace Roberto Carlos` thunder thighs, the stomach wrenching, gut churning final five minutes and the explosion of joy at our famous old stadium when the final whistle sounded. Epic though those encounters with Madrid were, they`re edged out by my stand out game of the noughties.
On August 22, 2004, Arsenal had set themselves a date with history. Having completed 41 matches unbeaten in the top flight, the Gunners welcomed Middlesbrough to Highbury needing to avoid defeat to equal Nottingham Forest`s all time unbeaten record. With Arsenal playing at the absolute threshold of their game and coming off the back of an unbeaten league season, only the most staunch Teessider would have bet on anything other than a resounding home victory. Prior to kick off, injured captain Patrick Vieira was presented with a special one off trophy to commemorate Arsenal`s historic feat of the previous season, a miniature, gold Premiership trophy which gleamed resplendently as sunshine enveloped Highbury. The home side began the game well in the ascendancy, a spot of eighteen yard box pinball ensued as early as the fifth minute, Ljungberg`s close range strike was beaten out by Schwarzer, Reyes readjusted his feet and poked the rebound goalwards only to see it ping off the post, Henry`s follow up effort was blocked. Arsenal were registering close to 70% possession when they took the lead on 25 minutes. Jose Reyes pinged a defence splitting 60 yard pass from the left back position, the ball sailing over the heads of forlorn Boro defenders like a quarter back`s throw in American Football, Henry gave chase as Schwarzer advanced to the edge of his area, Henry got to the ball first and lobbed the goalkeeper with expert precision, the ball dropping just under the crossbar at the perfect moment to make it 1-0. Boro were chasing shadows as an easy victory looked on the cards. Ljungberg`s 40th minute free kick cannoned off the crossbar and with half time looming, all inside Highbury were wondering how the score was only 1-0.
But there was an iron fist concealed from view inside Boro`s tame velvet glove. With two minutes until half time, Franck Queudrue advanced into Arsenal`s half for the first time in the match, he toe poked the ball into the path of Mendieta with Lauren in close attention, then just as Cygan looked set to burgle the Spaniard of possession, he just managed to nudge the ball forward to Joseph Desire Job, who was by now in space in the area to lash the ball into the roof of the net. Highbury was in a lid state of incredulity, but given our obvious dominance, feathers were not unduly ruffled. But within eight minutes of the resumption of the second half, mildly ruffled feathers had turned into a full on outbreak of clucking. Three minutes into the half, Reiziger`s hopeful long punt was misjudged by both Ashley Cole and Pascal Cygan and Jimmy Floyd Hasslebaink was through on goal, he pulled back the hammer and unleashed a trademark pile drive into Jens Lehmann`s net. Anxiety had set in but that was just the beginning. Less than three minutes later, Franck Queudrue found himself half way inside Arsenal`s half and with Jens Lehmann leaving a tantalising portion of his goal unguarded, Queudrue hit an improvised angled shot from distance which flew into the net as utter disbelief engulfed North London. It looked as though Arsenal were going to blow the record on the final fence, the equivalent of choking to death just before you breach the yellow tape at the London Marathon. But you don`t go 41 matches unbeaten in the top flight without having a bit of steel about you and at this point in time, Arsenal were like a force of nature.
Straight from kick off, Arsenal were in the groove. Dennis Bergkamp, captain for the day, was particularly inspired. (Upon presenting him the magnum of Man of the Match champagne post match, Henry gleefully remarked, "Dennis, Man of the Match…..again!") Bergkamp picked up the ball 40 yards from goal and lurched forwards like King Kong, crushing any Teesside sky scrapers that were asinine enough to get in his way. From twenty yards he set his radar and took aim at the Boro goal, hitting the bottom corner with his self styled precision. There was a steely look of determination as Henry scooped the ball out of the net and the team did not stop for reflection, immediately taking up their positions in anticipation of kick off, hungrily wiping Middlesbrough blood from their lips and salivating for more. The away side cowered, aware as we all were as to what was coming. Within eight minutes, Arsenal were level. If Bergkamp the sorcerer was at the tip of his powers on this afternoon, then Fabregas, the 17 year old apprentice, was taking notes. On the edge of the box, he tip toed past three Boro players, freeing up space for Henry on the left, his low cross was met by the lurching Pires on the back post for a tap in. Whilst the other Arsenal players cavorted, Henry swooped by and scooped the ball out of the net in front of us in the Clock End, before wagging an impertinent finger at the Boro fans, "We`re not finished yet" he shouted menacingly.
He was correct. We weren`t. 12 seconds later we had moved into the lead. For my part, the fourth goal was a complete blur, I hadn`t even finished celebrating the equaliser. I have a very vivid picture in my mind of still leaping up and down faced towards the Middlesbrough fans when my sister tapped me on the shoulder impatiently, as I looked up, Reyes literally had the ball set on his right foot before lashing it into the top corner. It was one of those great slow motion moments that come along rarely in life, your brain rigorously records the details and plays them back to you perfectly, whilst your body has taken leave of its senses- shouting and punching the air like a man possessed, your mind is calm and imbibes every last second, squeezing the life out of the moment, aware of its importance. Without having fully expressed our relief at restoring parity, we were now exploding with joy at assuming the lead. I`m not sure I will ever have cause again to celebrate two such epoch making goals so close together for the rest of my days. I know now from the replays, that Boro looked brow beaten as they kicked off, Arsenal instantly dispossessed them, Fabregas again motored forward before releasing his amigo Reyes, the Spaniard put Reiziger on his aris with a deceptive back heel flick before pelting the ball in. The camera angle of the strike brilliantly shows that the jumbotron screens still bear the name Robert Pires in acclaim of his equaliser, the Clock End was still breathlessly punching the air. Martin Tyler`s piercing scream in the commentary box is still capable of bringing the hairs on my arms to attention, "REYES! Stand up for the Champions!"
Arsenal added some gloss in injury time, Bergkamp again taunting a broken Boro defence, which had stopped just short of lobbing in a white towel, playing a sublime pass to Pires in the left channel, he pulled it back for Henry to tap in. On reflection, one can hear a weariness in the crowd`s acclaim of the goal, we simply hadn`t got the requisite air back in our lungs to salute it with anything other than a weary chime. After all, no matter how much you enjoy the ride, nobody gets off a rollercoaster bright eyed and bushy tailed, you usually need a fag and a beer. We left the ground raising our eyebrows at one another and exhaling with exasperation, we were all aware of what we had seen. Not just a breathtaking game chocked full of drama and tension, but a game in which Arsenal had entered the history books for good. That`s not the only reason I`ve chosen it as the game of the Noughties, but also because I think it was the best time to be an Arsenal fan and was an example of a time when Arsenal were playing quite possibly the best, most potent football they have ever played in their 124 year history. The game tells you so much about Arsenal in this decade, the excitement, the determination and steel showed to come back, the potential for goals- and great ones too. Look at the names that feature in this article- Bergkamp, Henry, Pires, Fabregas, Ljungberg, Reyes- which defence could resist that? Arsenal were a force of nature at this point, an unstoppable tornado of talent moving together in unison. But like all great empires, decimation was afoot. Lauren and Vieira`s fist fight three weeks later after a draw in Rosenborg and Luis Aragones` appalling racist jibe at Henry in a conversation with Reyes destroyed the team spirit and created a Franco-Spanish split in the camp. Abramovic`s millions were beginning to tell and a Wayne Rooney dive would take down Arsenal`s seemingly unstoppable unbeaten run. But on this glorious afternoon in August 2004 all of that seemed a million miles away. At the final whistle, Highbury resounded to the sound of 36,000 Gooners chanting "We are unbeatable!" And we really were, this truly was the threshold and it felt as though it would last forever.LD.