Invincibles This Week: Wenger's merry Christmas

Thierry Henry celebrate scoring against Wolves 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.

Last week, we were held to a third draw in four league matches as Bolton Wanderers struck late to knock us off top spot, but the Christmas period would bring us much-needed festive cheer.

Setting the scene

Kanu scores against Wolves in 2003

The result at the Reebok Stadium ensured we wouldn’t be number one at Christmas, with us a point behind Manchester United at the Premier League summit. However, a home game against rock-bottom Wolves, whom he had thrashed 5-1 in the League Cup a few weeks earlier, was a huge opportunity to rebuild some momentum.

That would be needed with a trip to St Mary’s three days later to face a Southampton side occupying a Champions League spot heading into the festive fixtures.

Wenger’s words

Arsene Wenger

In his programme notes before the Wolves game, the boss lifted the lid on what Christmas would be like for our players: “The whole squad were in training yesterday, and this time of year is one of the busiest times for footballers, but we will never complain about it.

“We all feel that we are very lucky to be able to do what we love in our job. We can make a job of our passion, and the players are all adored by the fans, so it is great to give everyone something back during the Christmas holidays.

“I love the atmosphere at Boxing Day fixtures, it's always special. I've experienced it myself as a fan and I know how fantastic it is. I just want you all to enjoy the day today, and cheer us on to get the win.”

From the dressing room

Patrick Vieira and Thierry Henry

Patrick Vieira was left frustrated that his teammate for club and country wasn’t appreciated: “I was disappointed for Thierry this week because I really felt that he deserved to win World Player of the Year or European Footballer of the Year, if not both,” the skipper said.

“When you play the game you know how well the other players are performing and I'm sure Thierry deserved one of those trophies.

“Of course I see Thierry perform every day so I know how good he is but I also watch a lot of football on television and I have spoken to a lot of friends in Italy and Spain and they say that Thierry is the best. I don't think you can argue that he is the best striker in the world right now.”

On the pitch

December 26, 2003

Wenger wanted three points for Christmas and his wish was granted as we beat Wolves in a game that emphasised the gulf in class between the top and bottom of the Premier League.

Jody Craddock opened the scoring with an own goal and Thierry Henry struck twice to send us back to the top of the table, if only for a brief period.

Scrooge-like defending was the order of the day but poor Craddock was more Santa than Ebeneezer as he played a crucial role in our first two goals. The deadlock was broken after 13 minutes when Henry curled in a dangerous corner and Vieira's faint touch was helped over the line by Craddock.

Seven minutes later Vieira caught Craddock in possession and raced in on goal. The captain cut inside the hapless Wolves defender and set up Henry, who made no mistake from 10 yards.

That was effectively game over but the home fans were treated to another Henry special when he jinked past his marker and slammed a shot into the corner in the final minute.

Line-up: Lehmann, Toure, Campbell, Cygan, Clichy, Ljungberg (Edu 71), Parlour, Vieira, Pires (Aliadiere 71), Bergkamp, Henry. Subs not used: Stack, Keown, Kanu.

December 29, 2003

We started 2004 one point behind leaders Manchester United after grinding out a hard-fought victory at Southampton. Robert Pires grabbed the all-important goal 10 minutes before the break from Henry's astute pass, but victory was no more than Wenger's side deserved.

We were superior for long periods and, had Southampton keeper Antti Niemi not made a superb save from Freddie Ljungberg at the start of the second half, we would have cruised home.

This game represented the halfway point of our league campaign, and the manager indicated he'd given his side 9.5 out of 10 for the season up to Christmas. You'd have thought that mark would be the same if not better now, given that since then they have taken six points from six, conceded no goals and maintained their unbeaten start.

Gael Clichy again replaced the suspended Ashley Cole but, apart from that, this defence had conceded just two goals in the last six Premier League games. The young Frenchman acquitted himself with great composure.

Given that we had let in late equalisers at Leicester and Bolton in their last two away games, one hoped that we would hold on for the final 20 minutes. After Edu and Kanu had replaced Ljungberg and Dennis Bergkamp, Henry did his best to put daylight between the two sides by driving across the edge of the area and thumping a shot wide.

Niemi then denied the French striker the goal he deserved with a low save nine minutes from the final whistle, but the damage had already been done, with Saints boss Gordon Strachan revealing: "You could smell the fear on my players in the first 45 minutes. I have never had that since I have been here.”

Line-up: Lehmann, Toure, Campbell, Cygan, Clichy, Ljungberg, Parlour, Vieira, Pires (Lauren 87), Bergkamp, Henry. Subs not used: Stack, Keown, Edu, Kanu.

Where we stood

  P W D L F A Pts
Man Utd 19 15 1 3 38 13 46
Arsenal 19 13 6 0 35 12 45
Chelsea 19 13 3 3 36 16 42
Charlton 19 8 6 5 27 22 30
Fulham 19 8 4 7 30 26 28

What the press said

Robert Pires celebrates scoring against Southampton in 2003

"They keep on breaking records, keep on playing football that takes the breath away - but still Arsenal go into the New Year behind Manchester United." - Daily Mirror

"It must amaze Arsenal that they have gone half a Premiership season unbeaten and still are not top of the table, but they will feel nicely placed as 2004 starts." - The Guardian

"Arsenal flicked over the final page of the Premiership's 2003 calendar with a typical flourish of grace and style." - Daily Express

Elsewhere this week

Sebastian Svard

Danish midfielder Sebastian Svard joins Stoke City on a six-month loan deal, having spent part of the first season at FC Copenhagen.

Henry did get some recognition as he was named French Footballer of the Year for the second time, having also won the award in 2000.

We ended the year having lost just twice in domestic competitions throughout 2003.

Image of the week

Gael Clichy battles for the ball against Wolves

Gael Clichy battles for the ball with Wolves' Alex Rae in the Boxing Day clash. It would be the 18-year-old's first league appearance at Highbury, and his fourth match in the Premier League as he deputised for Ashley Cole, whom he was impressing.

"He looks really promising," the England man said at the time. "He likes going forward, he's really quick, and he's a good tackler. He's learning all the time from the coaches and I tell him a few things I have learnt too. It was good when he played on the left wing against Birmingham because that gave me the chance to help him where I could, I'm not sure if he should always be listening to me though, I'm not always right!"

UK number ones

Official top 40: Changes - Ozzy and Kelly Osbourne
Album chart: Life for Rent - Dido (sixth week at no. 1)
Box office: Lord of the Rings - The Return of the King

In the news this week

Beagle 2

Scientists failed to make contact with the £35 million British-built Mars probe, Beagle 2 after it was supposed to have landed on the planet following a seven-month journey.

A magnitude 6.6 earthquake devastated the southeast Iranian city of Bam, killing 26,000 people.

Sleepless in Peckham, the final episode of Only Fools and Horses is aired on BBC One. Preliminary figures indicate it was watched by 15.5 million viewers.

Find out what happened next as we looked to start 2004 with a bang against Everton at Goodison Park

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