Feature

The Road to Paris

To celebrate the ninth anniversary of Thierry Henry's stunning solo goal against Real Madrid, we remembered Arsenal's 2005/06 road to the Champions League final. This piece first appeared in the Arsenal Magazine in June 2006.

By David Ornstein

The most memorable European Cup campaign in the history of Arsenal FC so nearly saw Arsène Wenger’s men lift club football’s most prestigious trophy for the very first time. They were just 13 minutes away from being crowned “Champions of Europe”, but in the end it just wasn’t to be.

With the Gunners struggling to find any sort of consistency on the domestic front, it soon became a very real possibility that they would have to win the Champions League to qualify for the tournament next time around.

When the redcurrants were drawn to face Real Madrid in the competition’s first knockout round, 12 of the 18 players Arsène Wenger took with him to the Bernabéu were under the age of 25. But on a night that will live long in the memory of everyone connected with N5, Thierry Henry led his young troops to victory, sparking Arsenal’s season into life.

Three of the most unforgettable nights Highbury was ever to witness followed, with the Gunners dramatically eliminating Real Madrid, Juventus and Villarreal en route to their first ever European Cup Final.

In a campaign that saw Wenger’s fearless youngsters smashing records left, right and centre, their dreams were finally crushed in the Stade De France. But Arsenal’s heroic efforts on May 17, and throughout their entire European escapade, gained them plaudits far and wide and it is only fitting, therefore, that this month’s Perfect Ten recalls the key moments, in chronological order, from last season’s extraordinary Champions League adventure.

10. Arsenal 2, FC Thun 1, September 14, 2005: Dutch Delight

 

05/06 Arsenal 2-1 FC Thun

 

When Nelson Ferreira’s cross-cum-shot looped over Manuel Almunia to bring Swiss minnows FC Thun level with Arsenal in the Champions League opener at Highbury, it would’ve taken a brave individual to predict the Gunners would go on to reach the final in Paris eight months later. Just 10 years prior to Thun’s arrival at Highbury, they were playing semi-professional football in the Swiss third division. Yet it took until the dying seconds for Arsenal to grab all three points. In his final season before retiring, the inspirational Dutchman Dennis Bergkamp came off the bench to save the home side’s blushes. With referee Grzegorz Gilewski poised to blow for full time Dennis picked up the ball inside the visitors’ penalty area, swivelled on a six pence and then slotted home to send Highbury into delirium.

9. Sparta Prague 0, Arsenal 2, October 18, 2005: Henry 186

 

 

At a bitterly cold and 3/4 empty Letna Stadium in Prague, Thierry Henry became the greatest goal scorer in the history of Arsenal Football Club. The talismanic Frenchman had been out for six weeks with a groin injury and initially wasn’t even scheduled to make the trip to the Czech capital. But after just 16 minutes he was called upon to replace the injured Jose Antonio Reyes and five minutes later he made his mark. Controlling a difficult long ball forward from Kolo Toure with sublime ease, Henry teased a couple of defenders before unleashing an unstoppable curling effort across goal with the outside of his right boot. That drew him level with Ian Wright’s record of 185 goals for Arsenal but then 16 minutes from time Henry made history by shrugging off two defenders and firing low into the net to eclipse Wrighty’s eight year-old record.

8. FC Thun 0, Arsenal 1, November 22, 2005: Best Ever European Start

 

 

With qualification to the last 16 already in the bag, Arsène Wenger used his side’s trip to the Stade de Suisse as an opportunity to blood several youngsters, with Eboue, Flamini, Song, Djourou, Bendtner and Lupoli all making the squad. But Arsenal were in no mood to be rolled over and battled their way to a classic one-nil victory, courtesy of an 88th minute Robert Pires penalty. The strike ensured a fifth straight Champions League win for the Gunners, outshining Bertie Mee’s 1971/72 European Cup team who claimed four back-to-back victories, and officially secured the Club’s best ever start to any European competition.

7. Real Madrid 0, Arsenal 1, February 21, 2006: Henry The Great

 

Thierry Henry scores the winner at the Bernabeu

Thierry Henry scores the winner at the Bernabeu

 

Arsenal arrived at the Bernabéu as almighty underdogs; written off by nearly every journalist, pundit and neutral football fan alike. Coming into the tie Arsenal had won just four of their last 12 games in all competitions and their record against Spanish opposition was far from impressive. But if Arsenal were supposed to just roll over and die, someone must have forgotten to hand Thierry Henry the script. On 47 minutes the captain picked up the ball on half way, brushed aside Ronaldo, skipped past Mejia and Guti, outstrengthed Sergio Ramos and drilled the ball low across Casillas. The goal will go down as one of the greatest European solo efforts of all time and it ensured Arsenal would be the first ever English side to claim victory at the Bernabéu.

6. Arsenal 0, Real Madrid 0, March 8, 2006: Lehmann’s Heroics

 

 

In truth the Gunners should have sealed qualification to the Quarter-Finals long before Jens Lehmann was called into action, but in the circumstances, the big German’s contribution made for an even more exciting victory for Wenger’s men. Los Galacticos arrived at Highbury fortunate to be clinging on to just a 1-0 deficit from the first leg and, once Arsenal failed to capitalise on several openings, Real cranked up the pressure. Just after the hour Raul cracked a 25-yard drive against the post, leaving Lehmann eating Highbury turf. But when the Spaniard lashed his rebound towards goal, Super Jens came flying across his area and with lighting reactions palmed Raul’s point blank effort to safety. It was certainly a defining moment in Arsenal’s Champions League campaign and they were now the sole British representatives left in the competition.

5. Arsenal 2, Juventus 0, March 28, 2006: Vieira’s Au Revoir

 

05/06 Arsenal 2-0 Juventus

 

After nine glorious years spent inspiring Arsenal to no less than 11 domestic trophies, Patrick Vieira returned to his old stomping ground for one final hurrah. The irony was that little less than nine months after exchanging Islington for Turin, Vieira – a player who worked so tirelessly to bring European Cup glory to Highbury for the first time – was here to prevent his former comrades from doing just that. But, the French stalwart was outfought, outthought, outrun and ultimately outclassed by an 18 year-old protégé who learnt his trade off the father figure that was Vieira. Cesc Fabregas ran the show in midfield, opening the scoring after 40 minutes and setting up the second for his new captain, Thierry Henry, 20 minutes from time. A 2-0 victory over Juventus, one foot in the Champions League semi finals and one of the very greatest nights Highbury would ever play host to.

4. Juventus 0, Arsenal 0, April 5, 2006: Record Breakers

 

05/06 Juventus 0-0 Arsenal

 

It’s official: Arsenal have kept more consecutive clean sheets than any other side in Champions League history. By muscling their way to a 0-0 draw with Juventus in Turin, the Gunners broke AC Milan’s record of seven straight outings without conceding a single goal. And in achieving the feat, Henry’s troops marched on to their first ever European Cup semi final and edged a step closer to achieving their ultimate dream of Champions League glory. Inspired by their predecessors of 1980 (the first ever English side to beat Juventus in Turin) the visitors denied the home side any clear sights of goal and comfortably contained the six time semi-finalists. As the adventure continued it was arrivederci Juve and hola Villarreal.

3. Arsenal 1, Villarreal 0, April 19, 2006: Nice One Squirrel

 

 

It was the last ever European match to be staged at Highbury and the night Arsenal effectively booked their place in the Champions League Final. But the occasion will long be remembered for an attacker who couldn’t be caught by either side’s defence. Never mind Gilberto’s masterful display in midfield or Kolo Toure’s epic winner, the star of the show was the nut-eating grey squirrel who jinked around the penalty area with lightning pace, eloquent balance and breathtaking trickery that Thierry Henry could only dream of. After Toure looked as if he’d spotted an alien, Juan Sorin tried ushering the pitch invader to safety and the North Bank serenaded its latest hero, boss Wenger was quick to praise squirrel’s talents: “He was quite fast and a good dribbler,” the boss enthused after the match.

2. Villarreal 0, Arsenal 0, April 25, 2006: King Jens

 

Jens Lehmann

Jens Lehmann

 

“I thought to myself, if it is our year, Jens will save it.” Those were the words of Arsène Wenger after Jens Lehmann’s heroic penalty save booked Arsenal a place in their first ever European Cup Final. The Gunners were just two minutes away from making history when referee Valentin Ivanov adjudged Gael Clichy to have fouled Jose Mari inside the box. With Juan Riquelme a near certainty to slam the ball home, Jens guessed correctly, dived to his left and palmed the ball to safety. Cue utter pandemonium! Arsenal were on their way to Paris. The Gunners’ 10th straight game without conceding a goal smashed Ajax’s record of consecutive clean sheets in any European competition and finally silenced the critics who claimed Arsène Wenger’s men would never crack Europe.

1. Arsenal 1, Barcelona 2, May 17, 2006: “More than proud”

 

 

The young Gunners came, they saw and they so nearly conquered. Rarely has an Arsenal side produced such a show of passion, desire, grit and determination. But on this occasion it was a case of so near yet so far. As the Catalonians celebrated long into the rainy Parisian night – late strikes from Eto’o and Belletti overturning Sol Campbell’s towering opener – Arsenal’s dreams were left in tatters. Whilst applauding the 20,000 odd Arsenal fans who battled through the anguish to cheer their heroes off the field, Thierry Henry reflected on the “heart” and “quality” shown by his young soldiers. He was “more than proud” by what he saw on the night and disappointment soon turned to jubilation when the captain and record goal scorer signed a new four-year contract, committing the rest of his career to Arsenal Football Club.

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