November 25th, 2003 • 12:36 pm
Un-be-li-ev-ab-le. To all the “Euroskeptics” out there: Eat that! This is one for the history books. A victory. In Italy. Against a team with tons of European experience. Against 40,000 Italian supporters. With a depleted side (no Vieira, no Keown, no Lauren, no Wiltord). When they are bottom of their group. When pretty much everyone has written them off.
It was just magnificent. No, it was not the perfect game. It was a very tentative first half by both teams, both of them obviously afraid to lose. A typical first half of Champions’ League football. Then a flash of Arsenal genius with the help of Ashley Cole and the class of Thierry Henry opens the score. Then Inter Milan get lucky and, after a huge mistake by Edu, the ball recovered by Milan gets to Vieri, whose tame shot is deflected, then tipped against the bar by Lehman, and finds its way inside the net just the same. Back to square one. Darn.
The second goal, early in the second half, is, obviously, pure Arsenal. Cygan makes an excellent interception and launches an Arsenal counterattack. Thierry Henry creates, Ljundberg delivers. After that, Arsenal seem intent to protect their lead. They take Kanu off and put Gilberto on in the midfield. Henry is the lone striker, with Ljundberg and Pirès as offensive midfielders. Still Arsenal create the best chances, and deserve to be two goals up. But they aren’t. And it’s tense.
Then the turning point of the match. The Italians play typical Italian football, trying to pretend that they are being split in half by the Arsenal defenders. Somebody goes down in the penalty area, obviously hoping for a penalty decision. The Italian players stop playing for a second. Thierry Henry does it all by himself. He’s one on one, but inexplicably pulls back and waits until he’s one on three. Then he pulls forward at the speed of light and puts the ball exactly where it needs to go, in the far corner, beyond the reach of the keeper. Incredible. It’s as if he actually wants to have more than just one defender and the keeper to beat. In fact, in retrospect, he knew exactly what he was doing, of course. It’s easier for him to create the opening and then put the ball exactly where it’s supposed to go. It’s easier for him to be magnificent rather than just efficient.
(UPDATE: The whole thing is even more amazing when you think that Thierry was actually suffering from a hamstring problem at the time and had already signalled that he wanted to come off.)
There are still over 15 minutes left, but the game is over. Milan have a player injured and play at 10 against 11. They forget to defend. Arsenal seizes the opportunity and puts two more past the keeper (Edu and Pirès). A formality at this stage. But it’s excellent for the group position, of course, because in a one-on-one between them and Inter Milan (if it comes down to this), they now win with a 5-4 aggregate.
The perfect night. Proving all the critics wrong. Proving that class and elegance can still win the day, even in the “big” league. That Arsenal has the guts and has shed some of the naïvety. That they more than deserve a spot in the second round. That they might even go farther than that, this time. Forget Monaco’s thumping of Deportivo 8-3 at home. This is a 5-1 win away from home. In Italy. Against one of the masters of the genre.
Wow. This is exactly why I love football. And why I love Arsenal.