History Lesson: The InvinciblesBy Thetoaststaff
By: Brandon Whitfield
The only English team to challenge the dominance of Manchester United in the late 1990s through the mid 2000s was Arsenal. The Gunners were able to take the title away from United in 1998 and 2002. They also finished no lower than second from 1998 until 2005. Undoubtedly, the greatest achievement the club has ever accomplished has to be the incredible 2003-2004 Premier League Championship Season in which Arsenal finished undefeated. As far back as the 2002 season, manager Arsene Wenger mentioned that he he believed completing the Premier League season undefeated was possible. The Gunners finished the season with 26 wins, 12 draws, and 0 losses and completed the first undefeated season in England since 1889. The team was lead in attack by the phenomenal Thierry Henry, who had arguably his best season at the club with 30 goals in league play. Dennis Bergkamp, Robert Pires and Freddie Ljungberg were excellent playing with and creating chances for their striker. The midfield was run by Patrick Viera, who had a magnificent career at Arsenal due to his ability to completely control the midfield, make all of the important tackles, and do the dirty work necessary to make the team run. Contrary to the form of recent Arsenal defenses, the 03/04 squad had an incredibly stout defense consisting of Ashley Cole, Kolo Toure, Sol Campbell and Lauren. Three of these four players were on the Premier League Team of the season.
Through the first five games of the season, Arsenal took 13 out of a possible 15 points and sat at the top of the table. Manchester United also started strong, taking 12 points from their first five fixtures. This set up an important early season showdown at Old Trafford between the two league leaders. The game was a very emotional affair that resulted in Patrick Vieira being sent off for what looked like a kick at the leg of Ruud van Nistelrooy. In reality, Vieira was upset and took a swipe at van Nistelrooy but came nowhere close to touching the United striker. Arsenal played the rest of the game a man down and looked to be able to secure the draw until Diego Forlan was brought down in the box by Martin Keown in stoppage time. Ruud stepped up for the penalty kick and clanked it off the bar, leaving the Gunners to escape with a 0-0 draw to stay unbeaten. The game will always be remembered for Martin Keown leaping into van Nistelrooy, as well as all the other extra-curricular events after the final whistle, mostly from the Arsenal players.
Arsenal faced their first bout of adversity in April. The Gunners still sat at the top of the table with a four point advantage on nearest rivals, Chelsea. The season could have easily unraveled as Arsenal were painfully ousted from two other competitions within the span of a week, losing the FA Cup semifinal to Manchester United and the quarterfinal stage of the Champions League to Chelsea. Arsenal then welcomed Liverpool to Highbury, who were looking to take advantage of a seemingly wounded Arsenal squad. Arsenal found themselves down by a goal at two different points of the contest but pulled out the 4-2 victory thanks to a Thierry Henry hat trick. The magic that Henry created with his second goal to take the lead for the Gunners is, in my opinion, one of the greatest goals in Henry's career.
In the 35th match of the season, Arsenal headed to White Hart Lane to face their hated rivals, Tottenham Hotspur. Arsenal needed only a point to secure the championship. Spurs were struggling to a 14th place finish in the league but would have loved nothing better than to ruin their rival’s unbeaten season. Arsenal started off up 2-0 thanks to goals from Patrick Vieira and Robert Pires. Spurs were able to fight back with a Jamie Redknapp goal in the 62nd. In the 90th minute, a penalty was called on Arsenal goalkeeper Jens Lehman trying to defend a cross. The penalty was converted by Robbie Keane giving Spurs the draw. Spurs fans celebrated the comeback draw while the Arsenal players were able to celebrate the Championship and the continuation of their unbeaten run with the away fans.
With the league secured with weeks to spare, the entire focus of the season was to finish unbeaten. There had to be an enormous amount of pressure on the team as one slip-up would tarnish the legend of this year's Gunners. They would go from the invincibles to just another Premier League champion (like Chelsea who finished 04/05 with only one defeat and even accumulated more points than the invincible team did). For the final game of the season, Arsenal welcomed Leicester City to Highbury. Leicester were to be relegated and were just playing for pride at this point. Leicester were the ones to score first thanks to a Paul Dickov header in the 26th minute. Arsenal came out in the second half firing and was rewarded when Ashley Cole darted in and drew a penalty. Thierry Henry converted the penalty for his 30th goal of the season. The game was won in the 66th with a beautiful play that was capped off by Patrick Vieira. After the game, the Gunners were awarded their trophy and were able to celebrate with the home fans at Highbury. Arsenal had completed arguably the most impressive feat in the history of English Football.
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