Exactly 51 weeks ago, Arsenal drew nil-nil with CSKA Moscow on Matchday 3 of the 06/07 Champions League. Cast your mind back to it if your memory stretches that far – a whole host of chances, all missed. From one-on-ones to long-range efforts to open goals, the mighty Gunners could not convert a single one. If you remember, this was the game where Tomas Rosicky SOMEHOW missed an open goal from inside the 6-yard box. I was watching it in a bar at uni, and Gooners all around me were spitting venom at the profligacy of the team. Whilst I shared their sentiments, at that very moment I had an epiphany of sorts. As I watched the boys spurn chance after chance, everything around me stood still and it dawned upon me that I was watching the best ‘footballing’ side in the world. Never mind the lack of cutting edge that night, for sheer drama and entertainment, the only team to watch was Arsenal. Even the Man Utd fans had come over from the other side of the bar where their game was being screened to witness the almost-destruction of CSKA. Now fast forward nearly a year, and the team has fulfilled the promise shown that night. From profligate to prolific.
Sure, we weren’t playing the best of teams, and maybe we had the rub of the green, but that was an absolute joy to behold. There has been a lot of talk these last few days that this Arsenal side has to win a trophy this season, or all the good performance and early season promise will be a waste. I beg to differ. Don’t get me wrong, I want nothing more than for us to regain the Premiership or finally win the European Cup, but on a night like this all you can do is appreciate it for what it is – footballing bliss. For a moment try and ignore the fact that it was another three points on the road to the next round and that we’ve got the Scousers away next, just savour the 90 minutes of absolute pleasure you witnessed. This win has gone down in the history books, and one day it’ll be something to tell the grandkids about.
Onto the match itself. Theo came in for Eduardo in the only change from the side that beat Bolton on the weekend. It was unsure whether the youngster would replace Eboue or Eduardo, but in the end it was the Crozilian who drew the short straw. I felt sorry for him as this game would have been tailored-made for him, being was away from the hustle and bustle of the domestic scene, but alas it wasn’t meant to be. Sooner or later he’ll get his chance to shine though.
Not even five minutes had passed and we were a goal up. Alex Hleb showed excellent vision in the left corner to slip the ball inside the defender to the onrushing Fabregas, who steadied himself and used the defender as a shield to curl the ball around the keeper and into the far corner. Dennis Bergkamp and Robert Pires eat your heart out. The perfect start – before kick-off I had predicted that it’d be a tight and tense affair with no goals in the first-half and a barrage of Arsenal attacks in the second – shows how much I know!
As happens with early goals, it settles the crowd and players down, perhaps a bit too much. The crowd started with the ‘oles’ and Flamini looked a bit sloppy as Slavia reacted well with a couple of long-range efforts that did not trouble Manuel, but showed enough to suggest that Arsenal would not have everything their own way. That is, until the second goal. A poor corner from Cesc was even more poorly dealt with by the Slavia defence and the ball broke for Hleb at the back-post, who proceeded to lash the ball home with the aid of a deflection. It was later announced that the goal was officially an own goal, those gits are UEFA are proper stingy. I’m sure the rule is that if the original shot is on target then the attacking player gets the rub, or maybe that is only in English football??? If the Prem was to operate under UEFA rules whereby the last man to get a touch on the ball is credited with the goal, then Frank Lampard would have a sum total of zero goals in open play methinks.
Either side of the second goal Ade had a few chances to add to his tally for the season with a couple of headed efforts, the first being a tame effort that came off his neck from a Clichy cross, the second being a textbook downward header from a Walcott cross that the keeper did exceptionally well to save. Speaking of Theo, he had a quiet first half-hour but then really burst into life. Five minutes of the first-half remained and their keeper fluffed a back-pass and the ball went straight to Theo. With a defender hovering and the keeper advancing he still had a fair bit of work to do, but he neatly skipped around the keeper and tucked the ball between two defenders and into the empty net from the edge of the box to claim his first goal at the Emirates. He had been duly rewarded for his persistence. There was even time for a potential almost-goal-of-the-season candidate from Emmanuel Eboue (who had frustrated me big-time up until then). Sagna played short ball down the line to him and with their left-back incoming, he showed ridiculous deftness of feet to flick it over him, very Vieira-esque. I’m not quite sure whether he meant to shoot or it was a cross gone wrong, but his effort came mighty close to going in, curling away from the goal at the very last moment with the keeper stranded. Eboue is an enigma, often losing possession and being caught out of position, but then able to conjure up a moment of magic like that.
Just like in the first-half, we scored within five minutes of the restart. A sweeping move combined with clever movement saw Hleb in acres of space in the inside left channel and he dummied the defender like only he can before wrong-footing the keeper and slotting home at the near post. We simply hadn’t eased off, this team has developed a ruthless streak which it did not have last season, and there are many reasons attributable to this, the most obvious one being the departure of a certain Mr. Henry and his tendency to overemphasise the need for the perfect goal. Speaking of the King, Prince Walcott did a fine job of impersonating him minutes later. Hleb, again at the hub of everything good, threaded Theo in behind the defence with a perfectly weighted ball inside the defender. Bearing down on goal from the left side, it was a scene which Gooners had witnessed a hundred times before. The only question was whether Theo could emulate Thierry, and he did so in style, breezing past the defender before instinctively sensing enough space at the back stick to poke the ball in off the far post. After his first goal in the red and white against Chelsea in the Carling Cup, apparently Thierry signed Theo’s shirt and wrote "only 225 more to go". Make that 223 now.
Theo was not only there to finish chances off either, as merely four minutes later Arsenal broke from a Slavia corner like they used to in the olden days. Hleb zoomed past his man and fed Ade, who turned and spread it wide Theo. On a hat-trick, he could’ve taken the greedy option and gone for goal, but instead he played the most delicate of first-time passes perfectly into the path of Cesc who had ghosted into the box. The Spaniard took a touch and finished with ease, if you were to dye his hair ginger then you would’ve sworn it was Paul Scholes.
So 6-0 before the hour and then came a triple substitution: Gilberto, Rosicky and Bendtner on for Flamini, the very influential Hleb, and the not-so influential Ade. For the next twenty minutes most of the intrigue was around whether or not Theo could grab a hat-trick and become the first Englishmen to do so for Arsenal since Ray Parlour. He had a couple of excellent chances too, the first being a point-blank effort which was magnificently saved after Cesc had played a low cross across the face of goal, the rebound falling to Rosicky who sidestepped one and crashed his effort against the frame of the goal. Theo’s second chance came when he wildly shot wide from Cesc’s "Hollywood" pass from his own half. That was another thing I noticed from tonight. With a real speedster up-front we attempted a lot more balls over the top, harking back to the days of yore when Bergkamp and Petit would clip balls over defenders’ heads for Overmars and Anelka to race on to. Yet another string to add to our burgeoning bow of goalscoring methods.
Manuel, who had sweet FA to do for two-thirds of the game, was called into action twice in the space of five minutes, both times saving well to his right from powerful shots. They say the sign of a good keeper is when he can retain his concentration throughout a game in which he hasn’t been involved and pull off saves, something which Aluminium did with flying colours.
As the clocked ticked it was revealed that the Gunners were within one goal of equalling Juve’s record for biggest winning margin in the Champions League. Could they achieve it? You bet they could! Nicklas Bendtner played a one-two with Eboue (who backheeled the ball into the Dane’s path no less) and then prodded the ball beyond the keeper, rounded him and held off the defender to make it seven. Seventh Heaven, 7-Up, Magnificent Seven, call it what you will, but that put the seal on a truly magical night at the Emirates, a stadium that was built to host nights like this.
There isn’t much more I can say about that performance because I’ve simply run out of superlatives. I can only compare it to when we beat Everton 7-0 a few years back, a match in which Bergkamp’s performance was the shining light. In this performance though, the shining light was the team as a whole.
I’m torn between which goal was my favourite, it’s between Theo second and Cesc’s second (his first wasn’t too bad either!) Theo’s for his cool finish and Hleb’s assist, and Cesc’s for the counter-attack. Ah what the hell, I’ll choose both!
Top Gun for the night: despite Hleb’s footwork and Cesc’s conducting, I can’t look past Theo, especially given all the recent hype surrounding his substitute appearances. It would have been so easy for him to let the game pass him by, but he took it by the scruff of the neck with his pacy dribbling and finishing ability – if only he could’ve got a third!!! His performance was akin to that of a young Michael Owen.
If I was being picky (which I am), I could take issue with Ade’s poor headed finishing, Flamini’s sloppiness – especially compared to Gilberto’s neat cameo – and Eboue’s unerring ability to be awesome one moment and awful the next. But I won’t. A performance like that should simply to be savoured, not dwelt on.
Up next is Liverpool at Anfield. Over the Wenger years this game has been indicative of how the team fare come May, even moreso recently given that Liverpool are eminently capable of mounting a serious title challenge. After the demolition of Prague Le Boss has got a selection headache – primarily over his attacking options (should Theo retain his place? If so, where? Two up-front or just the one?) But those questions can be answered another day. For now, just bask in the warm glowing warming glow of a footballistic masterclass.