November 5, 2004

An emotional tribute to the Arsenal Gunners' magical streak

The last time Arsenal lost a league game, half of Chicago students hadn't even started their degrees. Since then, the world was privileged to witness almost 18 months of the Gunners' unbeaten juggernaut until their October 24 loss to Manchester United, combining unprecedented footballing aesthetics with an immovable desire to win. For the 49 games after the loss to Leeds in May 2003, Arsene Wenger's legionnaires have shown Europe what Manchester United's tradition and Chelsea's millions cannot buy—team spirit.

It will take many years for the achievements of the Highbury Invincibles to sink in, but for now it is time to take an emotional trip down memory lane and savour some of the finest moments in this historic episode. What else are we to do as we struggle to come to terms with Manchester United's golden rule: If you bribe enough referees and assault enough of the opposition, victory over Arsenal, and football itself, is sadly assured.

Best Comeback: Arsenal 5-3 Middlesbrough, August 2004

Agonisingly close to beating Nottingham Forrest's 30-year old record, a Jens Lehman clanger and a smart pair of goals from Jimmy-Floyd Hassailbank and Joseph Desire Job saw the Gunners 3-1 down within minutes of the restart. Ten minutes later, the Gunners were already one-up thanks to a Dennis Bergkamp daisy-cutter, a Jose Antonio Reyes thunderbolt and a Robert Pires tap-in. Inevitably, Thierry Henry was not to be denied, and he bagged his second and Arsenal's fifth in the dying stages. Incidentally, this was the only match in the 49 where Arsenal found itself trailing by more than a goal. How do they do it?

Best Goal: Thierry Henry in Tottenham 2-2 Arsenal, April 2004

Arsenal was defending a corner one second, and the ball was in the back of the other net ten seconds later. Henry picked the ball-up just inside his own area, shuffled to the left wing (leaving about 65 defenders in his wake) and played an exquisitely-weighted ball down the line to Bergkamp. The Dutch Master hit a low cross first-time to skipper Patrick Vieira, who slid the ball into the far corner from the penalty spot after having run the length of the pitch. Pure Arsenal, pure class, and there was absolutely nothing anyone could do about it.

Most Satisfying Moment: Winning title at White Hart Lane, April 2004

What could be better than nabbing the title at their rivals' home? In my opinion, even more hilarious than winning it at Old Trafford a couple of years earlier because of the way Spurs fans were celebrating a late equaliser (from a dodgy penalty) as if they'd won the World Cup. Tottenham are a pathetic team destined for mid-table obscurity, and not even a French manager and a collection of mediocre continental talent will change that.

Runner-up: Ashley Cole throwing soup and pizza at Sir Alex Ferguson after the run's end, October 2004

Although not technically part of the run, this was sweet revenge for the lamentable display of brutality by Manchester United. What's funny is that every Manchester fan knows deep down that they are incapable of playing the football that Arsenal do, and that is what hurts them most. While they may have improved individually since the late '90s, they are not, and never will be, the same team.

Closest Call: Manchester United 0-0 Arsenal, September 2003

At nil-nil with a minute to go, Diego Forlan pranced into the area with Martin Keown at his side and went down as if a sniper had planted a bullet between his shoulder blades. Luckily for the Gunners, who were already a man down after Ruud Van-Nistelrooij's own contribution to the acting profession, the equine Dutchman planted his spot-kick on to the bar. Justice.

Best Dive: Robert Pires in Arsenal 1-1 Portsmouth, September 2003

Bizarrely under the cosh for the majority of the match, the Gunners looked set to lose their unbeaten run in the most horrific fashion: a Teddy Sheringham strike. Luckily, swashbuckling winger Robert Pires went down in the area like a sack of spuds after an extra strong gust of wind made a mess of his hair. Unjust, but who cares?

Alas, the tribute must end, lest the tears from my eyes damage the keyboard. Arsenal, we salute you.

Omar's British Football Glossary:

Bag (v): to obtain

Clanger: a horrendous mistake, e.g., Alex Gonzalez in game 6 of the 2003 NLCS

Daisy-cutter: a shot that goes along the ground, usually from distance

Dive: an attempt by a player to fool the referee into awarding his team a free-kick by pretending to have been fouled either when contact was only slight (BA level) or when there was no contact at all (PhD level)

Dodgy: dubious

Football: a sport which actually involves a ball touching someone's foot more than 20 times in three hours

Nab (v): to acquire in a cheeky manner

Pitch: field

Prance (v): the sort of sissy mode of movement that you would expect from a Man. Utd. player when he is setting himself up for a particularly unconvincing dive in the box

Spot-kick: penalty kick

Spud: potato

Tap in: a goal where the ball is stroked home with minimum effort from within 5 yards

Thunderbolt: a very powerful shot, usually ends up in the top corner

Under the cosh: placed under sustained pressure