Friday Top 5: Arsenal Champions League memories

Friday Top 5: Arsenal Champions League memories

Morning all. This afternoon I am off to the beach. I like Mexican beaches. They are very sandy and hot and sandy. I intend to do nothing except for sit on the hot and sandy beach all day, potentially with some frisbee, swimming and mescal consumption mixed in. All of this makes me very happy.

During my stay, I might also try to find somewhere to watch Sunday’s Champions League final. To be honest, I don’t watch a lot of club football that doesn’t involve Arsenal but I usually try to tune into this match every year. There is something incredibly magical about the competition: the evening fixtures, the drama and of course the music which makes you feel like you are about to go into a life or death battle for your club.

I’ve managed to catch bits and pieces of the Lisbon mini tournament and thoroughly enjoyed what I’ve seen. I know it doesn’t make quite as much TV money as the traditional home-away format, but I think there is definitely something to be said for these one-off ties in a neutral venue. It seems to produce more drama and it is generally a fairer way of doing things; in the two-leg scenario, the team that plays at home first is always at a slight disadvantage and can lean on it as an excuse.

I had considered writing about my views on the final, but to be honest I haven’t seen enough of the tournament nor do I care enough about the respective teams. On balance, I’d probably prefer to see PSG beat Bayern just for the novelty of having a new name on the trophy. But I suspect the Germans will do their thing and win fairly comfortably.

For this week’s Friday Top 5, then, I thought I’d have a look at my top five Champions League memories involving the Arsenal. This are not necessarily the happiest moments, just those that will longest in my mind for how they made me feel – for better or worse – at the time. Given our current struggles, its been a while since we played in the competition so this is going to be a bit of a trip down memory lane. Here goes (in chronological order):

Wayne Bridge stuns Highbury (QF, 2004)

This one really hurt. By early April, we had practically wrapped up the league title and were well on our way to becoming Invincible. We dominated the first leg of this quarterfinal but were disappointed to come away from Stamford Bridge with a 1-1 draw. But just three days prior to the return fixture, we were dumped out of the FA Cup semifinals by Man Utd. This felt like an opportunity to get our season back on track, but it wasn’t to be. Jose Reyes gave us a deserved lead on the stroke of half time but Frank Lampard levelled soon after. Then, as the match seemed destined for extra time, Chelsea left-back Wayne Bridge popped up out of nowhere and slotted a cool finish past the helpless Lehmann. Highbury was silenced, and our European dreams were over for another year.

Belletti breaks Arsenal hearts (Final, 2006)

Where to begin? Despite struggling in the league all season, we had somehow made it to the final – beating Real Madrid and Juventus on the way – thanks to a water-tight defense that hadn’t conceded a goal since the group stage. But at the Stade de France against Barcelona, things couldn’t have started worse. Lehmann rushed out of his goal and was sent off. Bobby Pires, in what would turn out to be his final Arsenal game, was hauled off to compensate. We rallied brilliantly and took the lead through Sol Campbell’s thumping header, and for the best part of an hour we held out. The fans dared to dream. But Samuel Eto’o equalized in the 76th minute and five minutes later Juliano Belleti squeezed in a fortunate winner via Manuel Almunia’s heel. Young and drunk, that was the only time football has made me cry.

New generation smashes seven against Slavia Prague (Group Stage, 2007)

By the 07-08 season, the Invincibles had completely disintegrated and Arsenal were rebuilding. Despite having to work on a shoestring budget following the move to the Emirates, Arsene Wenger’s team had started the season brilliantly and were top of the league table – thanks to a run of 11 straight victories – when Slavia Prague came to visit in late October. We completely blew the Czechs away with a scintillating display that typified the youthful exuberance and confidence of the team. Teenagers Cesc Fabregas and Theo Walcott both bagged a brace, while Alex Hleb turned in the type of performance that would soon attract the attention of Barcelona. After a couple of tough seasons, the future finally seemed bright again.

Ruthless United expose Arsenal decline (SF, 2009)

Fast-forward a couple of years and things were not looking quite so rosy. Our title challenge in ’08 faded on that fateful afternoon in Birmingham and, after another chaotic summer of rebuilding, we were inconsistent in 08-09. However, we finished in a comfortable fourth in the league and battled our way to the semifinals of the Champions League. In the first leg against Man Utd, we were outplayed but got away with a 1-0 loss, offering hope for the return fixture. But at the Emirates, it was over before it had even started as Park Ji-Sung and Cristiano Ronaldo each scored in the first 11 minutes. After putting in such a poor performance on such a big occasion, that was the first time I truly started to doubt our future under Wenger. We haven’t been back to the semifinals since.

Young Gunners beat Pep’s Barca (Last 16, 2011)

ARSHAVIN!!!! This was by far the best European night the Emirates has seen. When Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona side came to London in February 2011, they were being lauded as one of the best teams of all time and were huge favourites to win not only this tie but the tournament itself. While names such as Messi, Villa, Xavi and Iniesta littered their teamsheet, ours featured the likes of Djourou, Eboue, Clichy and Song. In truth, they battered us for the first hour and only spurious finishing kept the deficit at 1-0. But in the last 15 minutes, inspired by Fabregas and a teenage Jack Wilshere, we scored two beautiful goals to beat the world-beating Catalans at their own game. The Spanish giants were stunned and in Wilshere, the Emirates had a new hero.

Right, that’s enough of that. I’ve got a plane to catch. I’ll be taking a break from the writing this week but I should have something for you all on Friday. Have yourselves a great weekend.