To celebrate the 11th anniversary of Arsenal’s completing their unbeaten campaign, we listed our top 10 performances from The Invicibles season. This feature first appeared in the Arsenal Magazine in May 2004.
Inter Milan 1-5 Arsenal
November 25, 2003
My first two choices were high-scoring affairs capped yb stunning individual goals by Thierry Henry. They are head, shoulders and probably half-a-torso above anything else this season given the criteria set out. But the sensational display at the San Siro just pips it for me.
Remember the significance. Arsenal had taken one point from their first three Champions League games (including a 3-0 reverse at Highbury by Inter on the opening night of Group B). Victory was a necessity.
Remember the absentees - Vieira, Campbell, Lauren, Gilberto, Bergkamp, Wiltord. Remember the then relatively unknown names of Justin Hoyte, Gael Cliche and Michal Papadopulos on the bench. It smacked of a squad at full stretch.
But they delivered. It was Inter’s second ever Champions League defeat at San Siro, their first home loss to English opposition for over 40 years and they went into the game having not conceded at Serie A goal for more than a month.
Henry breached their defence early but Vieri responded with a goal that Jens Lehmann told the website afterwards was “three times lucky”. Ljungberg restored the lead then, five minutes from time, Henry conjured up a clinching third that combined pace, vision, confidence and lethal finishing. He left Javier Zanetti trailing in his wake to spear home a shot past Francesco Toldo. Pires and Edu added late goals but 5-1 did not flatter Arsenal.
They knew they had to to win or that modern barometer of footballing greatness - the Champions League - would have been pointing straight towards stormy weather. However they met the challenge and exceeded all expectations.
My report from the San Siro that night ended with one word - incredible. I stand by that.
Arsenal 4-2 Liverpool
April 9, 2004
The great make-or-break week of the season had started badly. Out of the FA Cup, out of the Champions League, Arsenal trailed 2-1 to Liverpool at Highbury. Going down in the press lounge for a half-time cup of tea, you could sense a shock was on the cards and almost hear the sound of grating metal as knives were sharpened.
Pires, so often ‘Johnny on the Spot’ this season, prodded home an equaliser after the break. And then Henry put Arsenal ahead. I don’t need to describe the goal. If you saw it, you will remember it.
This was not a perfect performance. There was obviously fatigue in those legs. But, even tired, they were more than a match for a side that would eventually finish fourth in the Premier League.
Henry added number four with perhaps the stroke of good fortune that had been absent in the two games earlier that week. His second goal lifts the style factor of this game all by itself and its significance in the Premier League campaign can not be overstated. A good magician always has something up his sleeve and this result was conjured up when it matted most in the league.
Liverpool 1-2 Arsenal
October 4, 2003
Another game in which Arsenal trailed. Edu’s scrappy header got the visitors level before half-time but I remember saying on our commentary that day that in title season you have to excel.
Pires popped up with a wonderful long-distance winner and then, significantly, Arsenal retained their lead with relative ease. The previous season’s title bid had been undermined by the loss of such advantages late on. The nature of this victory proved this side would be more resilient this season.
Chelsea 1-2 Arsenal
February 21, 2004
Arsenal’s worst start of the season. Within 27 seconds, Eidur Gudjohnsen had swept in a Geremi cross and Chelsea were ahead.
This game came just six days after Arsenal had come from behind at Highbury to beat Claudio Ranieri’s side 2-1. It was Arsenal’s 16th game against Chelsea without defeat but, this time, Stamford Bridge fancied a shock.
Yet within 20 minutes Arsenal were ahead. First Vieira ran on to one of the best through-balls of the season, from Dennis Bergkamp (who else), to steer the visitors level. Then Chelsea keeper Neil Sullivan failed to gather a corner and Edu hooked home.
Arsenal had to weather the storm around half-time as the home side replied with vigour. But, yet again, they did it. And if you keep on doing it you can’t be called lucky. Bergkamp’s vision scored high on style points while the substance of the defending was apparent.
As for significance? Wenger’s side had gone to one of their main title rivals, defending when they had to and attacking when they could. And this particular victory came in February when injuries and suspensions were starting to bite. We learnt a lot about Gael Clichy that day as Ashley Cole was injured and the victory he helped to ensure opened up a seven-point gap at the top of the Premier League. It would never be reduced.
Blackburn Rovers 0-2 Arsenal
March 13, 2004
Although Arsenal were not at their most fluent at Ewood Park, this game in part righted the wrongs of last season. On the same weekend a year earlier, Wenger’s side had produced by far the worst performance of the entire campaign.
Gilberto, who ended up playing at centre back that day, admitted afterwards that the dire 2-0 defeat was resonating in his mind before kick-off and most of the travelling support would have been fearing deja vu.
In fact it was not a great performance. Henry curled in a long-range free-kick early in the second half and Pires popped up, yet again, to add a second at the death. But the trips to Blackburn, along with Bolton, had been Arsenal’s undoing in the title race in 2002/03. This was no glamour game but Arsenal had kept their standards sky high. Matching that 115-year-old unabated league season would be based on that principle. Low key on style, massive on substance and significance.
Manchester United 0-0 Arsenal
September 21, 2003
It is easy to forget that there was a football game played that day. From the frenzy that followed one could be forgiven for thinking both sides simply turned up for controversy’s sake.
Games between the traditional top two have often decided the championship and, even so early in the season, there was every reason to suspect this would be the same. Arsenal, without the suspended Sol Campbell, were resilient and deserved their point. Now I suppose I would say this but the last-minute penalty looked harsh. However from the moment Ruud van Nistelrooy’s kick bounced back down off the bar you knew you’d seen something that would shape the title race.
Wenger also said that this was the nearest Arsenal came to losing the Premier League.
Arsenal 5-1 Wolverhampton Wanderers
December 2, 2003
Ok, this one may have slipped below the radar of many Arsenal fans. But it represents the highlight of the Carling Cup run, one of the unexpected delights of the season. Wolves were virtually at full strength. Arsenal had the likes of Stack, Simek, Tavlaridis, Clichy, Fabregas and Bentley in the starting XI plus Olafur Ingi-Skulason and 16-year—old Ryan Smith coming off the bench.
Yet Arsenal dominated. Up-and-coming Jeremie Aliadiere scored twice and Fabregas notched too. In doing so the Spanish 16-year-old became the youngest ever Arsenal scorer. This performance had stele and, given the nature of the Arsenal side, substance. Its significance is drawn from the emerging of Fabregas - a star in the making.
Arsenal 5-0 Leeds United
April 16, 2004
The first of two performances whose appearance is solely based on one player - Thierry Henry. But then again, forget the FIFA vote, he’s the best player in the world.
When Leeds came to Highbury on April 16, the two teams were heading in different directions. Arsenal were closing in on the title, Eddie Gray’s side were fast slipping into Division One.
It was Henry’s 251st appearance for Arsenal and he started the night on 146 goals. Ninety minutes later he’d hit four and, in doing so, overtook John Radford as the club’s third-highest all-time scorer. His pace was just too much for the Leeds defence and he was even fouled on the fourth but, as he stumbled, he still managed to steer his shot past Paul Robinson.
Speaking afterwards, Henry was quick to deflect much of the praise onto his team-mates. But, on a night like that, it is difficult to look beyond a player who was certain to become a Highbury legend.
Portsmouth 1-5 Arsenal
March 6, 2004
The Fratton Park fans began the night with the customary booing of Henry but by the end of this FA Cup sixth-round tie they were singing his name as loudly as anyone in the visitors’ end. That tells you something.
Arsenal started slowly but then, midway through the half, the Portsmouth defence made a fatal error. They fouled Henry. A little over 30 minutes later they were 5-0 down.
Okay it was not all Henry. Ljungberg grabbed a brace and the increasingly influential Edu was also to the fore. It was another tie that looked tricky on paper, less so in reality.
Portsmouth 1-1 Arsenal
May 4, 2004
With a respectful nod in the direction of Manchester City (a), Leeds (a), Chelsea (FA Cup) and indeed the first half of the Champions League quarter-final second leg, this is my final choice. Bear with me.
The really significant aspect of this season is the unbeaten Premier League run. If it happens every 115 years then you’ll see roughly three Hayley’s Comets for every two English League campaigns without defeat.
Having won the title 10 days earlier, Arsenal were struggling to lift themselves and a resurgent Portsmouth backed by their own reverent support looked a dicey affair. True to form, Arsenal trailed but yet again they somehow found a way. This time it was Jose Antonio Reyes who levelled. The under-praised Jens Lehmann also weighed in with a big performance.
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