EPL wrap 2004! (1 Viewer)


Onye kwe, Chi ya ekwe
Nov 1, 2004
Arsenal’s sudden but temporary fragility after they lost in controversial circumstances at Old Trafford on 24th October has given critics an excuse to belittle their earlier achievements and claim that there is nothing particularly special about Arsene Wenger’s side. So the end of the year provides an opportunity to regain a sense of perspective.

Chelsea’s impressive rise domestically, the renaissance at Barcelona, the familiar serene progress of Juventus and Milan in both Serie A and the Champions League and Arsenal’s struggle to regain their equilibrium in the Autumn, have taken the gloss off what the Gunners managed between May 2003 and October 2004. They went 49 consecutive Premier League games without defeat, including the entire 2003-04 season when they unsurprisingly claimed the title with an 11-point margin over second-placed Chelsea.

It has become fashionable in recent weeks to say, “So what? The Premiership is an easy league.” That’s nonsense, of course, as the world stars who play in it every week will readily testify. It’s certainly different from Serie A and La Liga, with a greater emphasis on attack and less sophisticated defensive organisation, but as physically gruelling, mentally demanding and intensely competitive as any tournament in the world over 38 high-octane matches.

So to win the EPL at any time is a worthy achievement, as Manchester United’s players and fans can confirm. To do so without losing a single match is sensational, and makes Arsenal without question the team of 2004 in my book.

The calendar year began with the Gunners in second place, having won 13 and drawn 6 of their 19 Premiership games to date in the campaign. They had won the last two encounters of the previous season, so the overall unbeaten run stood at 21 matches. While Wenger and his players never lost sight of the prime objective – which was to win the championship – various records beckoned.

By 1st January, 2004, Arsenal had already eclipsed Liverpool’s record unbeaten start to a Premiership season of 13 matches. Now in their sights was the 29-match undefeated record start to an English top-flight season, jointly held by Leeds United (1973-74) and Liverpool (1987-88). The Gunners reached that milestone when they beat Bolton Wanderers 2-1 at Highbury on 20th March. In their next game – a 1-1 home draw with Manchester United – they set a new record of unbeaten games from the start of the season, and also equalled Burnley’s 83-year-old record for the longest unbeaten sequence within a single league season.

Within their grasp now was the ultimate achievement – to get to the end of the 38-match season without losing. There were eight games to go, but the Gunners were still involved on two other fronts – the Champions League and the FA Cup. A memorable Treble seemed possible; but fate was about to intervene. Wenger’s team faced four games in nine days, the first two of which were an FA Cup semi-final against Manchester United at Villa Park, and the second leg of a Champions League quarter-final against Chelsea at Highbury. Arsenal lost them both, and their season suddenly seemed to be imploding. Defeat in their next game – at home to Liverpool three days after that shattering Champions League exit - would not only end the unbeaten Premiership run; it would also hand rivals Chelsea a decisive initiative in the title race. A crisis of confidence surrounded Wenger’s team, and the self-doubt was glaringly apparent against Liverpool, who were ahead through Sami Hyypia within five minutes. Thierry Henry equalised just after the half-hour, but the Reds restored their lead three minutes before the break with a Michael Owen goal. As the teams trooped off at half-time, the football world sensed an historic collapse in the making, with Arsenal on the brink of winning nothing from a season that less a week earlier had promised everything.

Wenger’s team-talk over the next 15 minutes must rank among football’s most influential, for the Gunners re-emerged transformed into a side bristling with determination and brimming with the self-belief that had carried them this far. Robert Pires quickly netted a second equaliser and the talismanic Henry completed a brilliant hat-trick as Arsenal swept aside the doubts and the doubters.

A week later Henry hit four as Leeds went down 5-0 at Highbury, and the following weekend Arsenal regained the Premiership crown with a 2-2 draw at the home of their traditional foes, North London neighbours Spurs. With the title in the bag, the target of finishing the season unbeaten was ironically at risk. Would the team have the necessary motivation to complete the task? A dour goalless draw at home to Birmingham and a 1-1 draw at Portsmouth underlined the problem. But the team’s formidable character passed the test, with victories at Fulham and at home to Leicester on the final day making Arsenal the first team since Preston North End in 1888-89 (the world’s inaugural season of league football) to negotiate an entire campaign unbeaten.

That Preston side – remembered by history as ‘The Invincibles’ – won 18 and drew 4 of the 22 games they played. The modern Arsenal team had won 26 and drawn 12 of their 38. Their overall unbeaten sequence now stood at 40 matches, and the next target was Nottingham Forest’s record of 42 top flight games without defeat, set under Brian Clough’s management between November 1977 and December 1978.

Wenger’s team equalled that run by beating Middlesbrough 5-3 in the second game of the current campaign – despite trailing 3-1 in the second-half – and set a new record by beating Blackburn Rovers 3-0 in their next game. They went on to extend their record to 49 matches before it came to an end amid some questionable refereeing decisions at Old Trafford. And it will endure as a phenomenal achievement not simply for the awesome statistics, but also for the often breathtaking quality of the football arsenal played. The fluency, speed and incision of Arsenal’s attacking play in setting their various records was awesome at times, and stands comparison with the very best, in any league and in any era.

It has taken them some time to regain their composure since the run ended. They are still not back to their consistent best, though the fluency is gradually returning. Meanwhile those who seek to detract from Arsenal’s achievements should remember that, if the English League is of such poor quality, other great teams like Don Revie’s Leeds, the Liverpool sides of Bill Shankly and Bob Paisley and Manchester United under Matt Busby or Alex Ferguson would have completed unbeaten seasons. None did. In fact the closest any team came to doing so in the modern era was also Arsenal, under George Graham, who lost just once in 1990-91. The critics should also bear in mind that despite their post Old-Trafford blip, Wenger’s team have lost just twice in 60 consecutive Premiership games. They’re unbeaten in 62 of their last 67 away from home. And they’ve scored in 128 of their last 135. Chelsea may be five points clear at the moment, but Jose Mourinho will not be thinking Arsenal’s crown is his just yet.

Best Single Moment of 2004:
Greece winning Euro 2004 to prove that the underdog still packs a bite.

Most Memorable Match of 2004:
Tottenham 4, Arsenal 5 – a mad, gloriously entertaining reminder of what football was like in the 1950s and early ’60s.

Most Impressive Performer (Player):
Thierry Henry – Numerous assists as well as 43 club goals – including goals in big matches, such as each of Arsenal’s last four Champions League games.

Most Impressive Performer (Coach):
Jose Mourinho – Retained the Portuguese title, won the Champions League, switched clubs and countries and has taken Chelsea to the top of the Premiership (with an eight-point lead at the time of writing) and smoothly into the knock-out phase of the Champions League.

Best Goal of the Year:
Henry’s crucial second (Arsenal’s third) in the pivotal 4-2 victory over Liverpool at Highbury on Good Friday.

Team of the Year:

Biggest Disappointment of 2004:
The increasing prevalence and volume of racist chanting, and in particular Fifa’s gutless attempts to deal with it.

Main wish for 2005:
For different reasons, that Sir Alex Ferguson, Florentino Perez and Sepp Blatter all become bored with football.

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