The 2002/03 season saw the retirement of Mr. Arsenal, Tony Adams. The one-club man embodies everything that is Arsenal. Battling with alcoholism half of his career but always giving 110% whenever he’s on the pitch wearing the red and white. I always found it weird that Alan Shearer was chosen to lead England in France’08 when Adams was also in the same starting eleven. Also joining the big man was the ever loyal and dependable right back, Lee Dixon. Both were part of the impenetrable back four that have served Arsenal over a 3 decades. Gilles Grimandi, Richard Wright and Junichi Inamoto completed the departures from the squad that season.
In their place came, Rami Shaaban (Swedish goalkeeper that only got to wear the gloves a total of 5 times that season), Pascal Cygan (Lille stalwart in their Champions League debut, but never found his feet in the English game), Gilberto Silva (fresh from winning the World Cup with Brazil, the defensive shield that not many can see) and Kolo Toure (the effervescent young Ivorian who started 16 games for Arsenal in his first season, albeit in various different positions).
After winning the double the season before, many would’ve expected Arsenal to retain the league title having finally found a midfield replacement for Emmanuel Petit in Gilberto and still possessing the best striker in the world in Thierry Henry. However, the retirement of Adams left a big void in the club with Patrick Vieira taking over as captain but perhaps not as inspiring as the Englishman just yet. Henry still scored 32 goals that season, matching his tally in 01/02 but the lower figures achieved by Ljungberg, Wiltord and Bergkamp meant that we were very dependant on our number 14.
Gilberto’s impact was almost instantaneous, coming on as a substitute in the Community Shield and scoring the solitary goal to beat Liverpool. Cardiff was to be the only ground where Arsenal picked up any trophies that season. We started the season considerably well, winning 7 and drawing 2 in the first 9 games. The run was ended at Goodison Park, where a certain Wayne Rooney opened his Premier League accounts with a belter outside the box that beat David Seaman. The bad effect spilt into the next game which culminated in our first home defeat of the season to Blackburn.
Arsenal bounced back to win the next 3 games on trot including the last one, a 3-0 win over Spurs, thus continuing Wenger’s impressive unbeaten record against our rivals. Win over Aston Villa was sandwiched between 2 losses. First was an uncharacteristic loss to Southampton, followed by a defeat to our main rival for the league title, Man United. Though, the second one was hardly to be suprising considering Shaaban, Luzhny and Cygan were part of the back 5 that night and with Vieira missing through injury.
Again, the team recovered from those defeats and in the next 12 games, won 8 and drawing 4 to stay in touch of leaders Man United. Which brings us to Ewood Park. Already lost once to Blackburn at home, it was a rare sight to see Wenger losing both games in a season to a mediocre team. However to keep up pressure on the Manchester club, we needed to win the remaining games. Unfortunately, 2 wins and 3 more draws put paid to whatever hopes Arsenal had of retaining the title. When Leeds came to Highbury next, this was a game which we must win to prevent United from clinching the title with 2 games to spare. Mark Viduka made sure that did not happen and yet again Arsenal and Wenger had failed to retain the Premier League. However, the last 2 games would bring a bigger meaning in the near future.
Meanwhile in the cup competitions, we meekly bowed out of the Worthington Cup, when the reserves were no fight for Sunderland, losing 3-2 at home. In the Champions League, Arsenal again qualified for the second group stage but failed to progress any further. As it was in the league, the failure boils down to Arsenal’s failure to win matches. Too many draws meant Valencia and Roma qualified ahead of us in the group.
Again, the FA Cup proved to be the one beacon of light in the disappointing season. Wenger’s love affair with the world’s oldest cup competition meant that for the Arsenal were contesting in the 3rd consecutive finals in this competition. Southampton was to be the opponent and were ruthlessly dispatched with a workmanlike performance from the team still hurting from the league failure. Seaman kept another clean sheet in the final which he almost single-handedly lead the team to the final. His final season at the club and yet he was still able to make the save of the decade to deny Sheffield United in the semifinal, clawing back the ball from an almost impossible angle.
So, Vieira lifted his first title as the captain of Arsenal. But the most important games of the season were actually the last 2 dead matches of the league. Thrashing Southampton 6-3 (a rehearsal for the FA Cup final) and Sunderland 4-0 away, was the starting point of a magnificent 49 games that will never ever be matched.