Continuing on the look back at decade, we arrived at the 2004/05 season. It is said that retaining the title is harder than winning it in the first place. That can not be any more correct for Arsenal. 03/04 was the 3rd Premiership title for Arsenal under Arsene Wenger, but none of those have been followed by retaining the title. A trophy would end up at Arsenal that season, the FA Cup was won via the last ever Patrick Vieira’s last ever touch of the ball in a competitive match for Arsenal.
The start of the season saw the last 2 of the George Graham brigade depart, thus finally making the entire squad truly a Wenger one. Martin Keown and Ray Parlour were 2 wonderful servants of the club. Many of subsequent signings were of higher technical qualities than both of them but few would have had the same passion and desire the both Keown and Parlour had for football and particularly Arsenal.
The confidence from last season was apparent in the early matches. There was great belief within the team that they are almost unbeatable. They would of course go on to beat Nottingham Forest’s record of 42 games unbeaten run in the league. Teams were cut apart by the articulate and yet effective brand of football that Wenger demanded. Everton were easily dispatched 4-1 at Goodison Park in the opening game but the unbeaten run was so nearly ended in the first Highbury game of the season. Middlesborough were 3-1 ahead midway through the second half but Arsenal rallied and responded, champions style. Bergkamp ran at the heart of Boro’s defense and reduced the deficit before Pires equalised 10 minutes later from the easiest of tap-ins. 30 seconds later, Arsenal took the lead. Fabregas won the ball straight from the Boro kick-off and fed Bergkamp who in turn releases Reyes who smashed an unstoppable shot into the top corner.
Equalling Forest’s record by beating Blackburn, Arsenal then went on to record another 5 more wins and a draw. Only 9 games into the season but we were already looking like champions elect going into yet another crucial game away to Man United. It was the magical 50th match in the unbeaten run but that was a far as we got, for the referee Mike Riley had other ideas. Even 5 years on, it was the performance of the Riley which sticks in my mind. He gave Rooney a penalty against Sol Campbell in the second half, even though there was no contact whatsoever. There was an incident in the first half which showed how biased Riley was. Ljungberg had nicked the ball midway in United’s half and was appended by Rio Ferdinand. It was a red card offense but sadly, not a whistle was even blown for the foul.
The defeat badly affected the players. After over a year of not losing, the manner of the defeat really broke the team apart. 3 draws followed by an Anfield defeat. Despite the loss of form and confidence, we still beat Spurs at White Hart Lane during that period. What made it even worse was the fact that those 3 draws were against lower sides, Southampton, Crystal Palace and WBA. The poor run of form meant that Chelsea overtook Arsenal at the top of the league as Mourinho’s side were beginning to repay Abramovich’s investment.
The team responded to put in a more accomplished display for the remaining matches but there were too many drawn games that scuppered our hopes of retaining the league title. The significant factor was the long absence of Gilberto Silva. There were many heads turned when he signed for Arsenal and even though he was part of the team that finished unbeaten, not many really value his worth to the club. He was more of the silent screen in front of the back four that you don’t notice when he’s playing. It is only when he is not, that his value is more appreciated as opponents finds it much easier to find gaps to break through. However, in his absence, we were presented with the oppourtunity to view the latest Wenger masterpiece. At just 18 years of age, Fabregas finished his first full senior season with 25 starts and 2 goals. A star was born.
We again failed in the continental stage, this time in the 1st knockout round. Bayern Munich were the victors on this occasion as left Arsenal left a lot to be done after losing the first away leg 3-1. Henry’s single goal in the return leg was not enough for us to progress any further in the competition. The young Gunners also crashed out in another cup competition. They ended their journey at Old Trafford, losing by a solitary goal in the Fourth Round of the competition.
The FA Cup was once again the saviour of Wenger/Arsenal’s season. We defeated Man United in the final, however the manner of the victory was something else. Normally, Wenger’s team would control the game and doing most of the attacking. This was the exact opposite. Lehman was in inspired form as he thwarted waves after waves of United’s attack. Toure and Senderos were also complementing each other well in front of the German keeper. Playing only Bergkamp up front, we were never going to trouble United’s defense much. The match went into penalty kicks and unlike the Galatasary defeat in 2000, this time all of our kicks went in.
No one could’ve guessed that Vieira’s spotkick would be his last action for Arsenal. In a way, it was a sad end to his Arsenal career. There was no real send-off given to the big man, no chance of showing him the appreciation that we thought he deserves. No league title but yet another FA Cup albeit in the most different of fashion that is normally associated with Wenger’s Arsenal.