Part three of the feature series sees how the London rivalry between Chelsea and Arsenal still holds the same importance in Europe despite the issues the two clubs currently face domestically
A contribution post from Tom Overend.
Highbury, North London, April 2004.
England’s two best clubs lining up against each other for a debut Champions League Semi Final spot.
The pairing was irresistible – an unbeaten Arsenal side soon to become Premier League invincibles, pitted against a mercurial Chelsea team buoyed by Roman’s millions. Both had fought for the title, but by then the North London outfit were almost there. Ranieri had failed to beat Wenger in 13 previous meetings and – after a one-all stalemate at the Bridge – a first victory seemed unlikely in the second leg at Highbury. Arrangements were already being made by the board to replace trophyless Italian with a bigger name; one that could compete with the biggest teams in Europe. Claudio Ranieri was officially a dead man walking.
Chelsea were, not for the last time, ultimate underdogs in Europe.
Normal order seemed to resume as Arsenal dominated the opening exchanges. After 45 arduous minutes, Jose Antonio Reyes scored the inevitable goal to put the invincibles ahead. Damien Duff had missed a glorious opportunity just minutes before, making the blow even harder.
Chelsea were behind on aggregate with just a half left to play, and away goals were needed fast to avoid yet another knockout by our rivals turned nemesis. The Tinkerman tinkered, bringing on winger Jesper Gronkjaer for young midfielder Scott Parker.
The dead man was not falling without a fight.
There was also newfound intention and belief instilled into the Chelsea players by Ranieri, and also the smile of lady luck. Claude Makelele, a genius not known for his goalscoring ability, fired an ambitious half-volley at Jens Lehmann from 30 yards. This should have been a simple stop, but it was inexplicably spilled straight into the path of Frank Lampard.
All-square. Hope for the Blues. Half an hour remaining.
Chelsea were one goal away from a knockout blow of their own. Suddenly, Arsenal did not look like their usual invincible selves. Real pressure was being applied by a newly confident Chelsea sniffing a historic opportunity.
Frank Lampard shot narrowly wide, and Eidur Gudjohnsen somehow had a well-worked chance cleared off the line by young Arsenal left-back Ashley Cole (how times have changed!). The tie was truly in the balance, but some sensed these chances would not come again. Five minutes remained, and extra time loomed. It was all Chelsea.
Wayne Bridge advanced into opposition territory, driving past ranks of invincibles. The penalty area beckoned, but so did a battle-hardened back-four. Bridge gives it off the Gudjohnsen, who majestically turns to face goal. Suddenly, the ball rolls through the legs of Kolo Toure and back to our own left-back. “Wayne Bridge can win it” still rings out to me when I reminisce this moment. Lehmann was beaten, and so was Arsenal.
Against all odds, it was Chelsea who was the first London team in a Champions League Semi-Final. Suddenly there was hope for ‘dead man’ Ranieri – with AS Monaco all that lied between us and a European Cup Final. The sad conclusion to this fairytale is for another day, but this match did resemble the shifting of power. It was almost four years until Arsenal beat Chelsea again after this. London well and truly remained blue.
Baku, Azerbaijan, May 2019. Fifteen years later, Arsenal and Chelsea meet again in Europe. No longer the best in England, this game represents an altogether different picture. Two transitioning giants, both needing a feel-good injection following gruelling campaigns.
However, the picture is strangely similar. Chelsea is once again managed by a trophyless Italian in need of a stabilising victory. Arsenal, once again, must be considered favourites.
The Europa League Final awaits – and any Chelsea player can be an unlikely hero like Wayne Bridge that April night at Highbury.
We just have to believe.
Join Terry Sazio in part 4 as we look back at the 2011-12 UEFA Champions League campaign, where we witnessed the greatest moment in the history of Chelsea Football Club…
• Part 1 – 1970-71 UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup
• Part 2 – 1997-98 UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup
• Part 4 – ‘The Road to Baku’ (The 2018-19 UEFA Europa League campaign)
• Part 5 – 2011-12 UEFA Champions League
• Part 6 – 2012-13 UEFA Europa League