When a long-suffering Arsenal fan like myself has to endure the rollercoaster form of the ‘Invincibles’ for this entire 2005/2006 season, where else do we go but up?
So the month of May has opened up the skies at last.
When Arsenal drew 1-1 to Spurs at home in Highbury on 22 April 2006, after a supposedly controversial Robbie Keane goal- there is a suspicion that Arsenal’s Champions League hopes have to be settled by winning the competition itself.
A quick look at Spurs’ final matches will confirm that they can only defeat themselves if they should lose the 4th place. Bolton has slacked off the CL spot for quite some time now and are probably playing for honors. West Ham had also better concentrate on their FA Cup fixture and tend to other interests other than the Premier League. So, Spurs did beat Bolton and even the staunchest Arsenal fan would have felt that the West Ham game should be a formality.
Arsenal’s final matches do not read as a rocky path either but nothing can be taken for granted. Sunderland can be brushed aside, but Manchester City can be formidable at home (MC beat MU in the Manchester derby earlier this season) and Wigan can spring a few surprises.
So Spurs won at home to Bolton and Arsenal won at Manchester City (almost at times betraying their own rollercoaster away form for large patches of the match) and Spurs were 1 point ahead of their north London nemesis.
And what a final day to celebrate Highbury’s last official game.
When Pires first scored for Arsenal to make it 1-0 at 7 minutes, I quite believed that Arsenal would romp all over Wigan Latic ala Middlesbrough thrashing on 14 January 2006 with a 7-0 whupping.
So when Thompson of Wigan stood over the ball in a potentially threatening freekick at 9 mins, all of Arsenal’s defensive blunders of the last 2 years were made bare for all to see. Paul Scharner (WA) merely had to ride the ball in after Thierry Henry did not close up the gap on time. But it’s ok.
Then Thompson was to take a freekick again at 32 minutes.
Arsenal had pressurised Wigan up to that time but to no favorable result and were made to pay for Lehmann’s misjudgement at the goalposts. But it was a great freekick and could be quite one of Wigan’s most impressive goals in their history. No matter.
Thierry Henry responded with great aplomb soon after the Arsenal restart and planted the ball in the net just like an accomplished Arsenal legend would at the 34th minute. No problem.
Soon after the kickoff of the 2nd half, Arsenal kept up the attacks on a valiant Wigan defence. But a dreadful Thompson back-pass in the style of Steven Gerrard gift-wrapped a much appreciated goal for Henry to bundle in. Filan was rounded nicely and Henry took a quick peek at the closest Wigan slob before deciding to fire in his 135th Highbury goal. And we needed a hattrick from Henry to make it one Highbury day to savor.
Ljungberg contributed to the cause when he was felled in the penalty box by fresh sub Johansson who received the red by U Rennie. Henry stepped up to take the penalty in a hobbled manner but shot well past Filan’s right. Filan got it all wrong at goal that day, bar his side’s resolute defending. Henry kissed the Highbury ground for a fitting tribute to one of the most emotional days of Arsenal FC. Arsenal legend signing off on the last day with a hattrick. The heavens are kind to us.
But the heavens decided to grant the long-suffering Arsenal fans another gift. Yossi Benayoun of West Ham struck a beautiful volley against Spurs and made it 2-1 at the 80 something minute. The scoreline would not have mattered though, since Arsenal was winning then and Spurs would have been still a point shy if they drew the West Ham game. But what an impact it made at the Highbury stadia. I’ve never seen such an ode to joy before in all years concerning football.
So Uriah Rennie decided that the match should end after 3 mins extra time and Arsenal players and fans waited with bated breath for the outcome of the Spurs v. WH match. I thought it smells of sheer theatrical display but what the hell, it’s Highbury’s last day. Live life happily.
And so it should be. Spuds have lost on the last day. All of Arsenal FC celebrated as if they have won the Premiership like most days. I for one don’t give a damn as it means that I could still be eager to tune in on Wednesday and Thursday wee hours’ mornings for a bit of Champions League action featuring the new Emirates Stadium.
But questions remained.
Will Thierry Henry stay at Arsenal? I personally don’t think so either. He might have a Patrick Viera-style change of heart but more signs prove that he does not need to achieve more at Arsenal. His hard work for a hattrick against Wigan is testimony to this fact. Signing off at Highbury and Arsenal FC with a hattrick is the best parting gift a striker (or indeed any player) could present to the club. Then again, adults are fickle. Maybe when Arsenal finally win the Champions League, he might decide to issue himself to the negotiations table pronto. We’ll wait and see but I do know that Arsenal will be so much poorer without Henry at the Emirates Stadium next season. And Bergkamp too. What legends.
Arsenal are also the weakest of the top 4 in the English Premier League. Chelsea’s challenge can be taken out of context as it does not apply to a reasonably run football club. That leaves Manchester United and Liverpool FC for Arsenal’s direct challenge.
Arguably, MU is still the strongest football club in the UK. (I don’t count Chelsea in as they operate in a Fantasy League of their own with Soccernet and not with the EPL). Liverpool are a resurgent side but their strikeforce could have been more fearsome than it should look right now. Morientes to stay but Crouch out, I think. So Arsenal needs some major signings in the summer. But that’s what you think. Monsieur Wenger is famous for snubbing ready-made stars and prefer to groom new players himself. He has his point.
But anyway, Arsenal did make it to the CL qualification and offer an immense relief for Arsenal fans everywhere. Highbury has certainly provided the theatrical likeness of a refined Court Opera house with a Dante Alighieri or Cervantes plot and all of its rancours, troubles and the triumphs and the ‘Double’ glory but nowhere close to the action when the curtain closed at Highbury forever and of the final performance at this theatre of football. Arsenal in the CL but Highbury has the last laugh.