Invincibles This Week: Portsmouth pose problems

Dennis Bergkamp in action against Portsmouth in 2003

Each week, we'll reminisce about our incredible Invincible season 20 years on by looking back at what was going on at the club on and off the pitch, as well as remembering key news stories and the pop culture buzz at the time.

A fortnight before, we came from behind to beat Manchester City and remain top of the table going into an international break but our winning streak was about to come to an end thanks to an old foe.

Setting the scene

Thierry Henry and Sylvain Wiltord celebrate a goal for France

Having claimed 12 points from our opening four games, the season paused for an international break at the start of September 2003 as we awaited the visit of newly-promoted Portsmouth, who had remained unbeaten so far in 2003/04. 

With a large quantity of his team jetting off around the globe, Arsene Wenger fielded Martin Keown, Dennis Bergkamp, Ray Parlour, Edu and Gael Clichy in a reserve team game against Tottenham Hotspur to help keep them match-fit, which ended in a 4-0 success against our north London rivals.

Wenger’s words

Arsene Wenger in September 2003

Despite being the newly-crowned Manager of the Month, Wenger was not too happy with the scheduling of the internationals. “When we have about 10 players away with their countries it is a disturbance to our routine,” he wrote in his programme notes for the Portsmouth game. 

“After the midweek games, the players returned to us on Thursday, they can arrive at any time on that day depending on where they played the night before. It's too short a time to focus, too short a time to recover and there's no time at all if a player has a minor knock.

“I think it's unfair to the clubs to have such a short time with the players after international matches because it's the clubs who pay the wages and prepare the players, and we have just as much at stake as any of the national teams.

“Because of the time difference, a South American international doesn't play Wednesday night. By the time the game finishes, it's seven or eight o'clock on Thursday morning and then he's supposed to play Saturday afternoon? It's impossible and it's why Gilberto can not play today.”

From the dressing room

Edu with Martin Keown

Gilberto’s replacement was compatriot Edu, who reflected on how he managed to settle so quickly into life in England: “When I signed for Arsenal I was really looking forward to coming here,” he said. “Not only to play for the club. I was also excited about living in the country and studying English and I think that's important.

“I have seen some Brazilian players who have gone to France or to Italy but they don't feel good there because they don't want to live there, they just want to play football and then leave. But I really wanted to live and settle here, so I think that has helped me.

“Also it's good that Arsenal is in London because everything is here. If you mention London to a Brazilian they will tell you it's unbelievable, there are also some nice Brazilian restaurants in London too!”

On the pitch

Saturday, September 13 2003

With our Champions League opener against Inter Milan the following week, Wenger opted to also rest Freddie Ljungberg and Sylvain Wiltord after their international exploits.

Many had labelled Portsmouth as prime candidates for relegation but they showed that they could play their way to safety. The game started in a lively manner with Teddy Sheringham attracting the attention of Sol Campbell and Kolo Toure as well as the Highbury crowd, and the former Tottenham striker responded by heading the game's first goal in the 26th minute following a cross from Steve Stone.

Pompey’s other frontman, Yakubu was a constant menace for our back four and could have put his team in front a few minutes previously, had he shot either side of Jens Lehmann when put through by Nigel Quashie but buried his shot into the arms of our German keeper.

We then came to life and with five minutes remaining in the first half, Robert Pires was sent galloping into the box only to be felled by the outstretched leg of Dejan Stefanovic. Thierry Henry tucked away the penalty but was forced to re-take his spot-kick after the referee spotted players encroaching into the box. The Frenchman netted the retake too, to send the teams into the interval level. 

In the second half, Wenger introduced Ljungberg and Wiltord as he looked to take the three points that would solidify his team's presence at the top of the table. Harry Redknapp’s team however showed resolve and defied the critics by holding out for the draw.

Their quality was not lost on Wenger, who said post-match: "Portsmouth impressed me. They have good players, they fight for every ball and they are hungry. Newly-promoted teams are like that early in the season. They certainly have enough technical ability to stay at this level.”

Line-up: Lehmann, Lauren, Toure, Campbell, Cole, Parlour, Edu (Ljungberg 70), Vieira, Pires, Bergkamp (Wiltord 74), Henry. Subs not used: Stack, Keown, Aliadiere.

What the press were saying

Teddy Sheringham celebrates scoring for Portsmouth

"Arsenal's laboured performance was probably not helped by the fact that nine of the 13 players they used had been on international duty. But Pompey also had a fair number away last week." - The Guardian

"Arsenal dropped their first points of the season as Wenger - the master of squad rotation - ditched his settled side." - Daily Star

"This was the contest between the master tactician, the smooth Gallic operator with the razor-sharp mind and encyclopedic knowledge of his game, and the bodger, the streetwise wheeler-dealer, the fast-on-his-feet crafty old fixer." - Daily Express

Also this week

Cesc Fabregas with the Player of the Tournament award at the 2003 U17s Championship

Our financial report for the previous year was released, with the headlines being a record turnover of £117.8 million while operating profits before player trading and exceptional items hitting another high of £25.3 million.

In what would prove to be a fantastic piece of business, 16-year-old Cesc Fabregas joined the club from Barcelona. He had recently won the Player of the Tournament and Golden Boot at the FIFA Under-17 World Championship.

Our Champions League campaign got off to the worst possible start as Inter Milan ran out 3-0 victors at Highbury, with Julio Cruz, Andy van der Meyde and Obafemi Martins netting in the first half, with Henry also missing a penalty.

Image of the week

Thierry Henry blasts a free kick into the Inter Milan wall

Henry smashes a free-kick into the Inter Milan wall during our opening Champions League game at Highbury. In the first-ever meeting between the teams, the Italian giants inflicted our joint-biggest loss in European competition.

UK number ones

  • Top 40: Are You Ready for Love - Elton John
  • Album chart: Permission to Land - The Darkness
  • Box office: Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (fourth week at no. 1)

In the news this week

David Blaine in his perspex box during his 44-day starvation stunt

Having already had eggs, golf balls and insults hurled at him by passers-by in the first 10 days of his 44-day starvation stunt, illusionist David Blaine had his perspex cage attacked by protestors who tried to cut his water supply outside Tower Bridge.

County music legend Johnny Cash died aged 71 due to complications from diabetes. Over 1,000 people would attend his funeral in Tennessee.

Channel 4 moves game show Countdown from 4:15pm to 3:15pm, something that leads to questions being asked in Parliament and the launch of petitions to have it rescheduled back to its old slot.


Invincibles This Week: A thriller against the Toon

Thierry Henry celebrates scoring against Newcastle

Each week, we'll reminisce about our incredible Invincible season 20 years on by looking back at what was going on at the club on and off the pitch, as well as remembering key news stories and the pop culture buzz at the time.

Last week, we went to battle in more ways than one against Manchester United, and while we retained top spot in the table, a three-match winless run had caused some concern.

Setting the scene

Patrick Vieira clashes with Ruud van Nistelrooy in 2003

Following the events at Old Trafford, the eyes of the footballing world were fixed upon us, and the big games kept coming as title contenders Newcastle United headed to Highbury for a then-rare Friday night clash.

That would be to help facilitate our trip to Russia to tackle Lokomotiv Moscow in the Champions League the following Tuesday, as we aimed to put the opening game loss to Inter Milan behind us.

Wenger’s words

Arsene Wenger

Despite two massive matches on the horizon, all the talk surrounding us stemmed from the events in Manchester the previous week, which Wenger addressed in his programme notes. 

“Firstly, I think we didn't react how we should have done at the end of the match and we want to apologise for that, and to rectify it,” he wrote. “We know we should not have done what we did.

“Considering what happened on Sunday and compared to what I've seen happen on football pitches before, I think the response we got was out of proportion and we need to put it in perspective. But I do recognise that we do need to change our behaviour and keep control in every situation.

“We want the supporters to be proud of our club and the way we behave - that's very important to us, so l apologise to you all for our behaviour that was not right on Sunday.”

From the dressing room

Jens Lehmann

Jens Lehmann divulged the techniques that he felt helped Ruud van Nistelrooy miss the infamous penalty the week before. “In match situations, I have moved along the line on four occasions in Germany and now once in England, and I can tell you that on all five occasions, nobody has scored,” he said. “I have to say though that I didn't save any of them, they either went wide or hit the crossbar.”

He was also a bit bemused at our supporters cheering along to his warm-up routine before games as he went through a series of mid-air splits and roly-polys. 

“In Germany nobody noticed. I've done it for the last few years now. Before the start of the second half, I need to loosen up after being in the changing room. It's really funny that the fans like it, and I'm pleased they like me, but it's just part of my game and I don't want to put on too much of a show.”

On the pitch

September 26, 2003

Despite their championship credentials, Newcastle arrived in the bottom three and having played 48 hours previously but they still played their part in a match of great excitement. The visitors harried and hustled while we were stoic and strong in a match in which the excitement and tempo refused to be doused by the first-half torrential downpour.

We took the lead thanks to an opportunist goal by Thierry Henry. The Frenchman collected a cross swung in on the right-hand side by Lauren which looked to be cut out by Titus Bramble, and stabbed it in the goal to the delight of the Clock End. However, Patrick Vieira left the field due to an injury and Newcastle took immediate advantage through Laurent Robert who converted a Kieron Dyer cut-back to bring the teams level.

The second half brought a halt to the rain but not a stop to the pace of the game as a thunderous Gilberto header put us back ahead. But Newcastle again responded with a wonderstrike four minutes later from Olivier Bernard which brought parity to proceedings.

With the match finely balanced at two apiece, we took it by the scruff of the neck. When Jermaine Jenas handled rather than headed a Robert Pires corner in the box with 10 minutes to go, Henry stepped up and cheekily chipped the resultant penalty into the back of Shay Given's net.

Although Freddie Ljungberg, Ashley Cole and Vieira picked up injuries it was a productive night for Wenger, who said post-match: “We dropped points against Portsmouth and then went to Manchester United, played well, but got a point there too. To have got three points from three games would have been a little bit too short."

Line-up: Lehmann, Lauren, Toure, Keown, Cole (Cygan 51), Ljungberg, Gilberto, Vieira (Edu 24), Parlour (Pires 61), Henry, Wiltord. Subs not used: Stack, Aliadiere.

What the press said

Gilberto Silva celebrates scoring against Newcastle

"Arsenal met the challenge with fortitude to open up a four-point gap at the top of the table. Smiles rather than snarls greeted the final whistle on a night when Arsenal showed the right sort of fight." - The Times
"The relief that flooded around Highbury after Thierry Henry took full toll of a defensive blunder for the second time to put Arsenal four points clear told its own story." - Daily Mirror
"Arsene Wenger hailed the unbelievable character of his Arsenal team as they charged four points clear at the top of the Premiership." - The Sun

Elsewhere this week

Ray Parlour wins a header against Lokomotiv Moscow

Following the game at Highbury, we jetted off to Moscow for our second Champions League group game, but without Vieira, Ljungberg, Dennis Bergkamp and Sol Campbell we couldn’t find the net as the game remained goalless.

With a full treatment room, youngsters David Bentley and Justin Hoyte were included on the bench for the game against Lokomotiv, but Wenger didn’t utilise any of his substitutes.

We were drawn against Rotherham United in the third round of the League Cup.

Image of the week

Freddie Ljungberg in pain during the win against Newcastle

Ljungberg writhes in pain during the game against Newcastle, but having made all of our subs, he was forced to limp on until the end, meaning we were virtually playing with 10 men. His injury was a blow as it would cause him to sit out the next few weeks, including further crunch matches against high-flying Liverpool and Chelsea.

UK number ones

  • Official Top 40: Where Is the Love? - Black Eyed Peas (second week at number one)
  • Album chart: Permission to Land - The Darkness (third week at number one)
  • Box office: The Italian Job

Elsewhere this week

Wimbledon playing in Milton Keynes

Wimbledon FC relocated to Milton Keynes, initially retaining their name and playing at the Milton Keynes Hockey Stadium while their new ground was being built.

Addicted to Love singer Robert Palmer died of a heart attack in Paris aged 54.

16 million viewers watched Dirty Den's return to BBC soap EastEnders, after seemingly being killed off 14 years previously.

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