Throwback Thursday | Thierry Henry’s moment of pure magic revives a flatlining season at Highbury
Throwback Thursday - April 1st edition|
Moments transcends everything in sport and nothing defines that more than football especially the good ones. Welcome to 'Throwback Thursday' where we take a look at a moment in time and in this week’s edition we look at the 2003/04 season and a goal that no Arsenal fan will ever forget.
It’s April 9th 2004 and we’re at Highbury as the clock ticks into the 50th minute. The stadium has been silent for most of the first half, especially with their beloved Arsenal struggling and had only just found their voice again as Robert Pires picked up the ball. This was, after all, their 32nd Premier League game of the season and with everything on the line, the next 40, plus added time, minutes were immense for the North London side.
And their opposition for the night just happened to be Gerard Houllier’s visiting Liverpool, who looked like they were at their best tonight. More on that later but for now, Pires is striding forward from half-line and has flown past a rather deep Thierry Henry. His only option happens to be marauding left-back Ashley Cole who has flown forward. He does have Patrick Viera towards his right but the forward has already made the move towards his left with the intention of finding Cole.
The left-back’s first touch, however, is poor and it loops the ball towards a Liverpool defender who thwacks it right back downfield, trying to send the speedy Michael Owen off on his bike. But before he can get to it, Gilberto Silva pounces, intercepts the pass and hands it to Thierry Henry who has the entire Liverpool team, barring Michael Owen, staring him down. The clock ticks on, the scoreboard shows 2-2 and the stadium has suddenly found a new lease of life.
It’s like Highbury knew something special was about to happen as Henry ignored the Viera pass option and instead looked right back at the ten defenders. Time has now stopped, which allows us a moment to take a breather and roll back the dice to figure out how exactly we got here in the first place. Because as luck would have it, this is not what those Arsenal fans at Highbury expected from their side.
They were after all a massive sixteen points ahead of Liverpool on the Premier League table and had a comfortable five-point lead over Chelsea, who sat second. Not only that, the Gunners had managed to lose exactly zero games up until this point with them winning 22 out of their 31 played so far, drawing the rest. It’s that form that had many fans disbelieving at the week they had and at the fact that Liverpool were actually putting up a fight against their mighty Arsenal and at Highbury no less.
What makes it even worse is the fact that the Reds had endured a topsy-turvy season. They challenged for the league title the season prior before falling off the trail half-way into the season where the Reds eventually finished fifth. That’s behind both Chelsea and Newcastle United and that form affected Gerard Houllier’s side going into the 2003/04 season. It meant that their fans were subjected to watching their beloved team battle mid-table mediocrity for the first half of the season before they eventually found their rhythm.
That allowed them, shockingly, to make a run for a Champions League place with the Reds walking into the game against Arsenal with just two losses in their last fifteen league games. They had won half that tally and with the Gunner reeling, Liverpool believed they had a chance. You see, Jens Lehmann had called it an “idiot schedule” with the North London side pitted against three of the Premier League’s big boys across three different competitions.
First, they had Chelsea in the Champions League quarter-finals before facing Manchester United in the league, then the FA Cup semi-final against United before the second leg against Chelsea and then Liverpool. All in the space of just over two weeks and Arsene Wenger’s men couldn’t handle it. They drew the first-leg against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge, drew against Manchester United in the league, lost to them in the FA Cup semi-finals before losing the second leg to Chelsea.
It meant that since their win over Bolton Wanderers on the 20th of March, Arsenal had won a grand total of nothing across three different competitions. Which is exactly how Liverpool wanted to face the Gunners, at their worst and with even their talisman striker Thierry Henry struggling, it made Liverpool’s job easier. The Frenchman had scored 22 league goals going into the game against Liverpool but had scored just the one during Arsenal’s “idiot schedule” which came against Manchester United in the league.
He blanked in both the legs against Chelsea and in the semi-final against the Red Devils although he played just over half an hour in the FA Cup. That still didn’t matter because either way, it meant that Henry was on a goal-scoring drought and that’s exactly the way Liverpool, Gerard Houllier and his defenders liked it. And despite an early threat from Arsenal, it was the Reds who took the lead. A simple corner was fired towards the back post, where Steven Gerrard waited to power it home.
Unfortunately, for him, his header was right across goal and it fell for Sami Hyypia who sent it into the net via a diving chest. Scrappy finish but it was a lead that Liverpool would take all day long. Especially since they managed to nick it within the opening five minutes. Just the start they wanted and it was exactly what Arsenal didn’t but they continued to hassle the Reds by dominating the ball.
It worked out in the hosts’ favour in the end as Robert Pires, from just inside the Liverpool half, scooped a lovely 40-yard pass towards Thierry Henry inside the area. That is despite being surrounded by three defenders and Henry, despite his form, made no mistake whatsoever. The Frenchman produced a sumptuous first touch to pluck the ball from the sky with his first move and then guided the ball between Dudek’s legs and into the goal.
In the words of the commentator, “Oh you can feel the weight around Highbury” as the stadium exploded. Liverpool had issues with the goal especially since they believed there was a foul in the build-up but unfortunately, there was nothing to check that. Yet it would be the Reds who had the last laugh of the first-half and while Michael Owen may have scored it, it was the King of Anfield, Steven Gerrard, who did everything else.
On the brink of half time, with literally minutes left on the clock, Gerrard collected the ball just inside the Arsenal half. The entire Gunners’ team, for some absurd reason, sat off the midfielder and allowed him so much time and space, that he could have done anything. Instead, with one utterly majestic 40-yard pass all Gerrard did was bisect the entire Arsenal team and found Owen inside the box.
The pass was perfect and since this was Ballon d’Or winning Michael Owen, he was never going to miss from all of seven yards out. Jens Lehmann stood no chance as the ball flew past him and into the net and the Reds celebrated their lead. It meant that the nearly 20 points behind Liverpool were ahead against an Arsenal side that many pegged to be favourites to lift a treble not even two weeks ago.
But Liverpool’s lead lasted all of four minutes into the second half with Arsene Wenger’s half-time team talk paying dividends. A quick one-two-three between Henry, Ljungberg and Pires allowed the latter into the area and he poked home the equaliser. Suddenly, the tide had turned and Liverpool were now on the back-foot. They had started the half with Arsenal the better side and the Reds failed to deal with the threat quick enough.
It meant that with the game on level pegging, the next goal would prove to be immense. Yet, Liverpool proceeded to lose the ball about 30 seconds after the restart and handed it right back to Arsenal near the half-line. The Gunners had everything on the line and needed no invitation to attack as Robert Pires flew forward, looking for something. He had Patrick Viera towards his right with Thierry Henry right in front of him on his left but Ashley Cole was the furthest forward, making a run at the Liverpool defense.
That seemed the best option for Pires who found the left-back with a decent ball to his feet but a poor first-touch saw the ball loop into the sky and fall kindly for a man in Liverpool white. But with Viera, Ljungberg, Pires and Cole all pressing high up the field, Carragher had no issues thwacking the ball downfield with the hope that it finds Michael Owen. The Englishman had been the lone man up top for the better part of the last five minutes and that wouldn’t change as Gilberto Silva stuck out a long paw and nicked the ball away.
It falls for Thierry Henry, just inside the Liverpool half and the stadium is buzzing with anticipation.
They had been buzzing with excitement since the Pires’ equaliser was scored not even a minute ago but with Henry on the ball and ten defenders ahead of him something special was on the cards. That is not to say that the Frenchman didn’t have options for the pass with Lauren waving frantically down the right, hoping for the ball. Patrick Viera had adjusted his run as well and moved into space to be able to receive the pass with Pires playing off the shoulder of the last defender. But Henry only had one idea in his mind.
Welcome to a moment in history….