The 2005/06 season was a season of firsts for Arsene Wenger. For the first time in his full reign, Arsenal finished outside of the top two. However, it was also his first time bringing Arsenal to the Champions League final. That is the holy grail for Wenger. After achieving so much in the domestic English football, Europe is the only last unconquered territory.
The biggest news going into the new season was of course the departure of club captain, Patrick Vieira to Italy to join Juventus. In his autobiography, Vieira mentioned that he did not want to leave but felt that the club was not trying to hang on to him. Thus he joined his fellow midfield partner, Edu in leaving Arsenal. The reason why the club was not all that enthusiastic to retain the Frenchman was because of the blossoming talent of Cesc Fabregas. Later in the season, Wenger would be justified in his actions by the young Spaniard. In their places, came 3 very young and talented midfielders. Alex Hleb joined from Stuttgart, Alex Song from Bastia and Abou Diaby from Auxerre in France. Oh and Adebayor also joined via Monaco.
In terms of the Premier League, it was not a vintage season for Arsenal. 21 wins, 7 draws and 10 defeats were not championship material at all. It on on the travels that all but 2 of those 10 defeats were at Highbury. Without Vieira, other teams seemed to take that as their initiative to bully us. Truth be told, most of the times, in places like Reebok Stadium and Edwood Park, we allowed this to happen. Although we can still pass the opposition off the park, we needed the likes of Gilberto and Henry to stand up and take one for the team, just to show that we will not sit down and be bullied.
This season also marks the penultimate season at Highbury. The tight playing surface, so close to the fans will be miss. The marble halls will be a miss. There have been so many wonderful memories of that stadium. The match that closes out the great arena, could not have been more fitting. Wigan was the visitor and we needed to win the game and hope that West Ham pull up something against Spurs to snatch fourth place away from our direct rivals. In the end, Spurs lost to West Ham (albeit some sort of poisoning were involved) and Thierry Henry grabbed a hattrick to end his era and also Arsenal’s at Highbury. He scored his third via a penalty and duly dropped to the ground to kiss it. That memory will forever be etched in my mind.
While we may have struggled in the league, we were simply a different team in the cup competition. Not in the domestic ones though, as we were knocked out by Wigan in the semifinal stage of the Carling Cup. Signs of desperation from Wenger showed as he put more of less his first 11 in for the semifinal, something which he has been reluctant to do recently. It was an even shorter journey in the FA Cup. Our participation already ended in the Fourth Round to Bolton. So, it was left to the European adventure for our saving grace in Highbury’s swansong year.
It was a fairly straight forward group stage qualification for us. The likes of Thun, Ajax and Sparta Prague were not going to cause Arsenal too much problems. 4 straight victories ensured qualification to the next stage. With 2 games to spare, we even got to see future Arsenal star, Tomas Rosicky score a consolation for Prague at Highbury. All the more amazing was the fact that only Toured was the first choice back four playing. Eboue, Senderos and Flamini were not just filling in, they would go on to set a Champions League record of 10th consecutive European clean sheets.
The draw was not particularly kind to Arsenal as we drew Real Madrid for the knockout round. No English team have ever beaten them at Bernabeu but Arsenal were to break the duck via a magical Henry solo run. It was no more than we deserve as we had other numerous scoring chances but found Iker Cassilas in inspiring form. A scoreless draw at Highbury was enough for us to qualify for the quarterfinals. Lehman was the real hero of that game, a double save to prevent the legendary Raul.
Fate would intertwine in deciding who Arsenal faced next in the quarterfinals. Patrick Vieira, for so long the figure that represents Arsenal, have been dealt a cruel fate. Only 8 months after leaving Arsenal, his Juventus side were drawn together with Arsenal to decide who goes forward in the competition. His heir apparent, Cesc Fabregas dominated the first leg, casting a wide shadow on Vieira’s return to his once hallowed turf of Highbury. On one hand, it was exhilarating to see the matured performance of Fabregas, the other hand, it was also sad to see the lanky figure of an Arsenal legend submitting to a 18 year old. Fabregas would go on the score the first and laid on the second for Henry. Another second leg scoreless draw meant that Arsenal’s European journey continued on.
Normally, the more offensive players would get all the plaudits in any football match. However the semifinal between Arsenal and Villareal could not be any different. 2 defensive players would play a crucial role in determining the winner of this tie. First, Kolo Toure is the one celebrated for scoring what turned out to be the decisive goal in the first leg at Highbury. Then Jens Lehman was toasted for his incredible penalty save in the final minute of the second leg away at El Madrigal, denying the mercurial Roman Riquelme. The shut-out in that game meant that Arsenal also broke the longest amount of time not conceding any goal in European competition. The makeshift defense must be given every credit for achieving this record.
No one could’ve set-up a better final than the one in 2006. Arsenal and Barcelona were the two sides in European football that were playing the type of football that typifies everything that’s good about it. Beautiful football is the name of the name for both sides, preferring to play their opposition to death with their immaculate passing. No one gave Arsenal a prayer of a chance but for 70 odd minutes, the trophy had Arsenal written all over it. That was inspite of the fact that we were 1 man down since the 15th minute of the final. Lehman, the stalwart of the impenetrable defense, had fouled Eto’o outside the box and got his marching orders. Even with fewer players on the field, Arsenal were doing all the attacking.
Before half time, we took the lead via Sol Campbell, restored to the line-up even though without him, we had a great run of clean sheets. We hold on as long as we could. Hendrik Larsson was the difference that saw the cup going back to Spain. However what we took back from this game was the fact that us, Arsenal could finally really challenge the upper echelon of European football.
We might not have won anything that season but everyone pundit and critics will admit that finally, Arsenal have arrived the biggest stage of European football, something which the visionary Arsene Wenger have craved for so long.