Writer: Tim Stillman
Date:Tuesday August 9 2011
After 2003's F.A. Cup win, Arsenal set about the business of healing some scars and taking back the crown they felt was rightfully theirs. They succeeded in some style too, winning the league in 2003-04 without incurring a single defeat. Despite a painful 1-0 reverse to Manchester United in the F.A. Cup Semi Final, followed swiftly by a Champions League exit to Chelsea four days later, an Arsenal side inspired by Thierry Henry took the league title at White Hart Lane, amassing 26 wins and 12 draws en route to glory. But it was a matter of time before Roman Abramovic`s steroid injection would yield pay dirt for Chelsea.
Jose Mourinho arrived that summer with a blank cheque and the Gunners would finish a distant 2nd in the league, ten points behind a Chelsea side picking up their first league title in 50 years. Arsenal completed a mammoth 49 game unbeaten run- an all time record in English football. But they were soon to be ripped apart by internal conflict. Two distinct cliques had formed between French and Spanish players in the squad. Lauren (raised in Seville) became embroiled in a fist fight with Patrick Vieira on the team coach after a Champions League draw with Rosenborg. Two weeks later Spanish coach Luis Aragones was filmed referring to Thierry Henry as "a black sh*t" whilst training with Jose Reyes. The split became so pronounced that Reyes was hoaxed into telling a Madrid radio station that there were "some bad people at Arsenal." Within 18 months, Reyes, Vieira, Cygan and Pires would all be gone.
But the Invincibles side did find one last geyser of glory in the shape of the F.A. Cup in 2005. It was a tournament which has come to take on symbolic importance for the club. Patrick Vieira`s last stroke of his boot in an Arsenal shirt. The first F.A. Cup ever to be won by a penalty shoot out. The last winners` medal ever collected by Dennis Bergkamp. The last trophy we obtained in our time at Highbury. And, as every single article you will ever read about Arsenal will tell you, it was the last trophy we have won to date. Bet you aren`t completely bored of hearing that, are you?
By the time the 3rd Round came in January, Arsenal were already eight points behind Chelsea at the summit of the Premier League. Though still in the Champions League, realistically, the F.A. Cup was their best chance of silverware from the off. Arsenal began with a home tie against First Division Stoke City, whom they memorably defeated in the 1971 F.A. Cup Semi Final. Having not lost a home cup tie in eight years, Arsenal were confident about their chances. Jens Lehmann had been dropped in December in favour of Manuel Almunia, but the grumpy German was reinstated for Cup games. Thierry Henry and Freddie Ljungberg were given the weekend off, leaving a strike partnership of van Persie and Reyes to seek some chemistry. New Ivorian signing Emmanuel Eboue was handed his debut at right back.
The match seemed to be easy enough for Arsenal who wasted a glut of first half chances- Jose Antonio Reyes the chief culprit. But the Potters clung on for dear life and took a shock lead in first half injury time. From Gudjonsson`s free kick, Lehmann was able to block Ade Akinbiyi`s header, but Wayne Thomas was on hand to hook the rebound into the roof of the North Bank net. The 6,000 travelling Stoke fans sang their anthem 'Delilah` well into the interval, but the goal simply served to excite Arsenal`s sense of injustice. Clichy`s pull back to the edge of the Stoke area four minutes into the second half saw Jose Reyes return it with interest into Steve Simonsen`s net with a sweet left foot connection from 18 yards. Stoke showed character and could easily have caused an upset when Akinbiyi`s header rattled the cross bar and also when Clichy was forced to clear Chris Greenacre`s header off the line. But Arsenal settled the matter with twenty minutes remaining when Jermaine Pennant`s right wing cross was met with a gorgeous spinning flick from young striker Robin van Persie. A small cameo of the quality he continues to bring us.
The 4th Round brought another Championship side and a familiar F.A. Cup foe in the shape of Wolverhampton Wanderers, of whom Arsenal deposed on their way to F.A. Cup glory in 1979 and 1998 at the semi final stage on each occasion. Once again, the Gunners looked comfortable enough in the first half without converting their chances into goals- a susceptibility that would haunt them all season. Thierry Henry looked to have broken the deadlock early in the second half when he nicked the ball from Wolves keeper Michael Oakes as he looked to kick the ball from his hands. But referee Mike Riley- who endured an afternoon of barracking given his "generous" refereeing in a fateful defeat at Old Trafford the previous October- ruled the effort out.
However, the home side did break the deadlock when Olifinjana clearly pulled Reyes back in the area- Riley again relented from giving a spot kick, but as Henry lunged for the loose ball, keeper Michael Oakes took Henry`s legs and Riley was left with little recourse but to give a spot kick. It was a penalty that captain Patrick Vieira steered into the roof of the net with aplomb. He would repeat that trick in more salubrious circumstances later in the tournament. Freddie Ljungberg prodded a Reyes cross in off the underside of the bar with eight minutes left to smooth`s Arsenal`s progression. But further inner turmoil was afoot. That Monday, Ashley Cole surreptitiously met with Chelsea representatives, having been dismayed by the contract offer Arsenal were presenting him. A further week hence and Jermaine Pennant was arrested and jailed for drink driving. He wouldn`t represent the club again.
The 5th Round gave Arsenal yet more First Division opposition at Highbury and yet another familiar F.A. Cup foe. Sheffield United, Arsenal`s victims in the 1936 F.A. Cup Final and the 2003 Semi Final. (Interestingly, Sheffield United were beaten semi finalists on the other side of the draw when the Gunners lifted the trophy in 1993 and 1998). The two sides also played out an infamous F.A. Cup clash in 1999 in which Arsenal offered the Blades a replay due to an unseemly winning goal by Marc Overmars. Despite having something of an Indian sign over the Yorkshire club in the competition, Arsenal rarely ever get an easy time. This feisty tie was no exception.
Arsene Wenger rested Vieira and Henry, whilst Campbell, Gilberto and Edu were injured. Ashley Cole was "injured." With a Champions League tie in Munich on the horizon, Pires was also left on the bench. A heated tie came to the boil on 35 minutes when United`s, ahem, "combative" midfielder Danny Culip launched a poor challenge on Fabregas, culminating in him treading on the youngster`s face. Captain Dennis Bergkamp took exception and shoved Culip. Bergkamp was sent off. Culip wasn`t even booked. To rub salt into the wound, Jose Reyes was retrospectively banned for aiming a lame slap at Michael Tonge in the resulting melee. Culip even thought he had given Sheffield United the lead on the stroke of half time, only for his header from Leigh Bromby`s long throw to be ruled out for a shove.
With only ten men and most of Arsenal`s experienced campaigners in cotton wool, the Gunners toiled until Robert Pires was called from the bench. He appeared to have won the tie on 78 minutes when Fabregas` shot was parried by Paddy Kenny and Pires was snooping in the six yard box to bundle home the rebound. Yet Warnock`s side were in no mood for submission and were awarded a stoppage time penalty when Philippe Senderos handled Culip`s shot in the area. Andy Gray sent Almunia- by now dropped again from Arsenal`s Premiership starting line up- the wrong way to force a replay.
Arsenal were left with a comical striker shortage for the midweek tie at Bramall Lane. With Henry injured and van Persie, Bergkamp and Reyes suspended, Freddie Ljungberg played in a lone striker role. Robert Pires, Gilberto and Edu were also unavailable, meaning Ashley Cole was left to play on the left wing in front of Gael Clichy. The Blades should have taken the lead after just 30 seconds. Derek Geary put Gray in behind Clichy and cut a cross back to Michael Tonge, who, with an open goal at his mercy, skied the ball so far over the bar that it plopped into my arms in the front row of the upper tier! (That`s a true story, kids). Fabregas also cracked the crossbar from 25 yards in a pendulous match. But Manuel Almunia would be the real hero. Firstly, when he flung himself full length to make a stunning stop from John Harley`s stoppage time diving header. His true heroics would come later in the tie.
Aliadiere forced a sprawling save from Kenny in injury time after the Irish goalkeeper had spilled Vieira`s free kick. In doing so, Kenny injured his right hip. A crucial detail later on. The sides could not be separated, so penalty kicks would decide the outcome. Andy Gray repeated his trick from Highbury by calmly converting. Lauren followed with a conversion of his own to Kenny`s right. Jagielka`s original effort was saved by Almunia, but referee Phil Dowd penalised the Spanish keeper for moving off his line. Jagielka scored the retaken attempt. Vieira slotted to Kenny`s right before Almunia dived full stretch to beat out Wayne Quinn`s effort . Ljungberg, again spotting Kenny`s injured right hip, rolled his spot kick to the keeper`s right. John Harley tried to tie the score again by blasting down the middle, but Almunia beat out the effort with his legs, leaving Cole to convert to Kenny`s right once again to win the tie.
Just a month after a harrowing performance against Manchester United which saw Almunia dropped to the bench in favour of Jens Lehmann once more, Arsene Wenger backed the Spanish keeper. "You have seen the real Manuel Almunia tonight. Before he wasn`t himself because he was a bit nervous." The Quarter Final saw the Gunners drawn away at bogey team Bolton Wanderers in the traumatic surrounds of the Reebok Stadium. But pre match fears and a January league defeat at the venue were banished to the back of minds with a professional Arsenal performance. Pires` inch perfect slide rule pass (immediately after which he was cynically kicked to the ground by Kevin Nolan) found Ljungberg whose snaking run evaded the Trotters defence and his finish squirmed in via the inside of the post. Once again, profligacy would make the task harder than necessary for Arsenal. Particularly when Pires darted between two Bolton defenders, cut the ball back for Ljungberg who inexplicably skied in front of an open goal. But still the away side went through 1-0 to secure their fifth consecutive F.A. Cup semi final and their sixth in eight years.
The semi final was a bruising encounter as new Blackburn Rovers manager Mark Hughes impressed a rough blueprint on his team. Rovers committed nearly 30 fouls in the first 45 minutes alone at the Millennium Stadium. But Arsenal kept their cool and took the lead on 42 minutes. Pires collected Johansson`s clearance from a corner, sauntered to the by line and cut back for Kolo Toure to slam into an unguarded net. A dreary Rovers side continued to rough house, spurred on by a measly 12,000 Rovers fans that had made the trip to South Wales. In the final eight minutes, substitute Robin van Persie put the seal on a comfortable 3-0 victory with two sublime goals.
His first came when he received the ball with his back to goal from Pires; he spun the ball around Andy Todd, leaving him for dead, before curving a beautiful arcing shot into the top corner. His second was an equally delicate guiding touch from the corner of the penalty box; Pires cut the ball back and van Persie opened out his body and curled the ball beyond Friedel and into the top corner. Unfortunately, the moment was punctuated by thuggery as Andy Todd split van Persie`s lip with a vicious swinging elbow as he wheeled away in celebration. Jose Reyes` girly slap against Sheffield United warranted a three match ban. The F.A. decided they couldn`t punish Andy Todd. Van Persie was left to salute the fans at the final whistle with gauze on his lip. But this was just a mere footnote. Having comfortably swotted aside Newcastle United a day later at the same venue, Arsenal`s final opponents were confirmed as Manchester United, whom Arsenal had defeated in the 1979 Cup Final. There were scores to settle.
United had controversially ended Arsenal`s league unbeaten run at 49 games with a contentious penalty "won" by Wayne Rooney. Jose Reyes came in for some rough treatment from the Neville Brothers, causing Wenger to rage, "Manchester United did not play with the spirit I like football to be played in. The spirit of the game was not right from the first minute." Rumours that Arsenal players exacted retribution by hurling pizza at Alex Ferguson in the tunnel were confirmed in Ashley Cole`s autobiography. United inflicted further heartbreak on Arsenal with a 4-2 league reverse at Highbury that effectively ended their title hopes. A spat between Vieira and Keane in the tunnel took the headlines in that match. Whilst United had also knocked Arsenal out of the League Cup at the Quarter Final stage.
With Thierry Henry out injured, Wenger opted for an odd formation. With Jose Reyes lining up on the right wing and Pires on the left, with Dennis Bergkamp lining up in a lone striker role. A myth has grown up around this game that the Gunners deliberately employed stifling tactics and set up to defend. A quite preposterous misappropriation when one considers United were able to register twenty shots on goal. Ferguson sprung a surprise in his selection. Cole had always had the measure of Cristiano Ronaldo, so Ferguson moved him to the left, to face Lauren. The Cameroonian endured a torrid afternoon at his hands.
However, at least one Arsenal player would have a terrific afternoon. The fact that Jens Lehmann faced twelve shots on target without conceding is testament to his performance. He turned away two close range exocets from Rooney and one from Scholes. "I made a good decision to leave him out" Wenger declared after the final whistle, referring to a period earlier in the season when he had dropped Lehmann. When Jens finally was beaten, Freddie Ljungberg was on hand. Ruud van Nistelrooy (or "cheating son of a bitch" as Patrick Vieira calls him) headed Ronaldo`s corner goalwards, only for Ljungberg to head against his own bar and out. It took the Gunners 108 minutes to manage a shot on target. A 25 yard bending free kick from van Persie, spooned wide by Carroll. In the final minute of extra time, Jose Antonio Reyes became the first Arsenal player ever to be sent off in a Cup Final, collecting a second yellow for a foul on Scholes.
But for the first time ever, the F.A. Cup Final was decided on penalty kicks. United won the toss and the kicks were to be taken in front of their fans at the North End of the ground. Van Nistelrooy stepped up first and scored with ease. Lauren countered with a typically cool conversion into the top corner. Ronaldo smashed to Lehmann`s left to restore the lead for United. But Freddie Ljungberg equalled the scores again by stroking the ball calmly down the middle of Carroll`s goal. Scholes was next to step up, with the boos of the Arsenal fans ringing in his ears behind him. He struck well to Lehmann`s right, but Jens guessed correctly and beat the effort out. The advantage was with the London side now.
Ashley Cole side footed the ball into the top corner and celebrated raucously in front of the United fans who had baited him with cries of "Chelsea rent boy" all afternoon. Rooney powered the ball right into Lehmann`s left corner to keep the pressure on Arsenal. Pressure Robin van Persie responded to with a sweet left foot finish into the top corner. "It was my first ever penalty as a pro. My legs were shaking but I knew I had to score," he would say, somewhat understatedly, afterwards. United captain Roy Keane was left in the nerve shredding situation of having to score. I`m not sure Keane does nerves though, he calmly steered the ball into the corner past Lehmann. It was just left to Patrick Vieira, in front of the United fans who had taunted him with that "He gave Giggsy the ball" chant incessantly for the previous six years.
"It would be so fitting if he hits the winner in front of them" I remember asserting to the person next to me. A stadium held its breath as Arsenal`s captain stepped up. Inhaled, looked at Roy Carroll and trotted towards the ball. His connection was true with the outside of his right toe and the ball scaled majestically into the roof of Roy Carroll`s net. It was to be his last ever kick in an Arsenal shirt. I can seldom remember a single moment of such release. To win a trophy with one sweep of the ball is not an experience one encounters often in a life time. The Arsenal players cavorted in front of the United fans. We generally just shook seven shades of crap out of each other in the South End of the stadium. Arsenal had performed a mugging, United had completely dominated them. "We`ve battered them today, but they don`t care because they`re going home with the Cup" Roy Keane remarked drily pitch side. "I came back into my office over that summer to rewatch the game many times because I can`t believe we played so badly" Wenger later admitted. Arsenal had won the F.A. Cup for the 10th time in their history, defeating United in a final for a second time.
That concludes the series of all ten of Arsenal`s F.A. Cup wins. I shall post them all in an article together shortly, along with the series I did on all 13 of our league titles last summer. I hope you enjoyed them. LD.
Follow me on twitter @LittleDutchVA
Date:Tuesday August 9 2011
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