Thursday, October 23, 2008
ESPNsoccernet: October 24, 11:02 AM UK
On that day: End of the Invincibles
It will perhaps be remembered for the use of a buffet in a post-match argument but October 24 2004 was a seismic day in the history of the English Premier League. In surrendering a truly wondrous unbeaten record of 49 games, Arsenal's aura of invincibility was gone. And has not returned since.
To lose it at Manchester United made it all the worse for Arsene Wenger's men, and the Gunners were thrown totally off-kilter in their attempt to regain the title they had won by going the whole season unbeaten. The previous year had seen a battling United performance end Arsenal's dream of a League-FA Cup double and despite Sir Alex Ferguson's side being a fading force at the start of a regeneration process, they were yet again the deniers of North London aspirations.
Arsenal's run had begun with a 6-1 pummelling of Southampton in May 2003, the week after they had lost the title by virtue being beaten by Leeds, handing United the Premier League for 2002-3.
The Gunners began 2003/4 with a 2-1 home win over Everton and their unblemished record survived by the skin of their teeth early on in the season. Controversy surrounded their 1-1 draw with Portsmouth when Robert Pires clearly dived to win Thierry Henry's equalising penalty. At Old Trafford a penalty would again go in their favour, as Ruud Van Nistelrooy missed in the last minute from the spot.
What had followed on that September day became known as the first 'Battle of Old Trafford' when Martin Keown, old enough to know better, mocked the Dutchman, who had already invited the ire of Arsenal for his involvement in the dismissal of Patrick Vieira, the Frenchman retaliating to a clear foul from Van Nistelrooy. The fragile temperaments of both teams frayed to breaking point and when a soft Keown challenge on sub Diego Forlan was judged by ref Steve Bennett to be a penalty all hell broke loose. In rattling the crossbar, Van Nistelrooy failed to keep his cool and was harangued by jubilant Arsenal players at full-time in a melee in which goalkeeper Jens Lehmann and Cristiano Ronaldo, barely arrived in England, were both heavily involved.
Van Nistelrooy would eventually have his revenge but was forced to spend over a year ruminating on how that miss had given Arsenal the chance and indeed belief that their lives were charmed. From that moment, Wenger's team played with a Gallic sense of entitlement that can either be a team's greatest strength or its Achilles Heel. They played a brand of athletic, attacking football that had rarely been matched on the British Isles, making them the envy of their rivals, with United especially heading the list.
That FA Cup semi win had been achieved by United playing a far more rough-house brand of football than they usually employed. The plan worked for Ferguson as his team qualified for a 'gimme' final win over Millwall. Juan Antonio Reyes, the gifted Spaniard bought in January 2004 from Sevilla, had been marginalised by some aggressive play from an all-action midfield trio of Paul Scholes, Roy Keane and Darren Fletcher. So too sub Thierry Henry as United held on to Scholes' solitary goal.
By the time Arsenal made it to Old Trafford in October, a Community Shield win over United, and eight wins out of ten had the Gunners strutting once again. They had overtaken the Brian Clough vintage Nottingham Forest of 1977-8 of 42 games with a 4-1 win over Norwich and 50 matches, a magical half-century was within their grasp. Only AC Milan, of the top European leagues, had ever gone further when from 1991 to 1993 they went 58 games unbeaten. The way Arsenal were playing and were feeling, that achievement was there to be equalled. Their fans' anthem was "we are invincible" and that felt like it may never end.
Yet Sir Alex Ferguson and United awaited. Though United were hardly in rude health. An opening day loss to young pretender Jose Mourinho and his Chelsea team had set them back before they had even started. A series of draws had followed, and had left them miles off the Premiership pace set by Arsenal and Chelsea. For Fergie this was the type of game he has long relished; the chance to prove that he and his team had been written off to the rest of the world's peril.
United chose to set their stall out in similar fashion to that at Villa Park in the FA Cup semi-final. Secret weapon Phil Neville was called in with Roy Keane absent through injury. The younger Neville had previously excelled against Arsenal, with Patrick Vieira often finding it difficult to play against him. So it proved again.
Neville and brother Gary also entered North London notoriety for their treatment of Reyes, Arsenal's player of the season so far. A fraternal double-team ended Reyes' interest and heart for this match, and many others beyond. He would never again shine as brightly in English football.
Arsenal possessed the greater craft but United were superior in terms of determination. After sustained Arsenal pressure, United bought time with a 73rd minute attack. Wayne Rooney, newly arrived at Old Trafford, cut past Sol Campbell in front of the Stretford End. He fell to the floor and yet another controversial penalty had been awarded. Campbell had been remiss to stick out a leg, Rooney's youth did not protect him from accusations of clear gamesmanship.
It was time for Ruud's redemption. Tension gripped the stadium yet Van Nistelrooy sent Lehmann the wrong way and fell to the earth in celebration of his relief. Arsenal were beaten, and perhaps knew the gods had gone against them when they had been with them a year earlier. As they pushed for an unlikely equaliser in injury time, their play and demeanour having lost their grace, Louis Saha was able to break away and release fellow sub Alan Smith. His cross greeted Rooney clear on goal and he passed it into the net. "The Invincibles" had lost, their terrace anthem had died and the belief drained away from Arsenal. 'Fifty Not Out' would not be achieved this time.
As United celebrated, their fans mocking the deflation of Arsenal's ego, a scene was developing backstage. What happened remains conjecture yet Ferguson appeared in front of the post-match cameras covered in a red substance that was clearly not meant to act as an accessory to his tailored suit.
Early theories abounded about the stain being due to an Arsenal player throwing tomato soup over him, later wisdom had a pizza being commandeered from an onlooking buffet table being thrown at the Scot. Ashley Cole, the most accused culprit, later denied doing so, as did Cesc Fabregas, then 17. Other rumours included Arsenal players refusing to swap shirts because they were wearing vests on underneath adorned with "50 Not Out" and Wenger confronting Van Nistelrooy, who is said to have told the Arsenal players that despite that their achievements they had "no class". Within days the game had entered football mythology as "Pizzagate".
United's strong-arm approach to the game, criticised by many, with Wenger at the head of that queue, and their ability to get under the skin of Arsenal showed other teams the way. The Gunners ended the season second, twelve points behind Chelsea, the new force in town with a manager who enjoyed getting under Wenger's skin perhaps more than Ferguson.
They eventually suffered five league defeats, including the return with United at Highbury. Like United the year before, an FA Cup win acted as little consolation; to date this was their last honour. Pre-eminence and intractable confidence shattered, Arsenal have yet to surpass that league position of 2004/5 and, despite Wenger's recent claims to the contrary, the idea of them surpassing the achievements running up to that rainy October day seem tantamount to fantasy.