Arsene Wenger is preparing for his 1000th game as Arsenal manager. It could be a momentous one: If the Gunners can achieve a positive result at Stamford Bridge, they will narrow Chelsea’s lead and increase their own opportunity of winning the Premier League.
It’s now 10 years since Arsenal last won the title. In that 2003/04 season, it just so happens that Chelsea were also their major rivals.
In the summer of 2003, Chelsea received a huge overhaul after being rescued from the prospect of administration by Roman Abramovich. Abramovich arrived in June 2003 and handed Claudio Ranieri a blank cheque with which to rebuild his squad. More than £100 million was spent on acquiring the likes of Hernan Crespo, Adrian Mutu, Damien Duff, Wayne Bridge, Joe Cole and Claude Makelele.
Arsenal’s summer was far quieter. The main incoming business was the recruitment of Jens Lehmann to replace David Seaman. Lehmann, an experienced German international, had the strength of character required to withstand the pressure of inheriting Seaman’s No. 1 shirt.
Arguably Arsenal’s biggest summer deals were new contracts for Robert Pires and Patrick Vieira. After falling short in 2002/03, Arsene Wenger’s team were stable and determined to regain their title.
Arsenal started the season strongly and were top after just four games. Although the Gunners had started well, a pivotal moment was still to come which would prove to be the catalyst for an incredible campaign.
In September, Arsenal faced Manchester United at Old Trafford. With the game poised at 0-0, Diego Forlan was awarded a stoppage-time penalty. Ruud van Nistelrooy was the man chosen to take the spot-kick. Van Nistelrooy had already incurred the wrath of the Arsenal players by overreacting to an outstretched leg from Patrick Vieira to get the Frenchman sent off. When Van Nistelrooy’s penalty hit the crossbar, the Arsenal players erupted.
Martin Keown was at the centre of proceedings, jumping aggressively against the shell-shocked Dutchman. The repercussions were significant: Six Arsenal players were charged with improper conduct, and four were suspended. However, the Gunners’ unbeaten start to the season was stil intact. It would remain that way until May.
Arsenal’s first encounter with Chelsea came at the end of October. The game was settled by an error from Carlo Cudicini, which presented Thierry Henry with the winner. After the match, Wenger told The Telegraph:
We have stability. We have been together for years and have the comfort of knowing we have won things before. When we are challenged, we become even more united.
Despite that victory, the race between Arsenal and Chelsea was still unbelievably close. At one stage prior to Christmas, the two teams were level on points, goal difference and goals scored. Incredibly, Arsenal led the table at that stage by virtue of alphabetical order.
With the table so tight, Arsenal decided to act decisively in the January transfer window. The Gunners broke their record to bring in exciting young Spanish forward Jose Antonio Reyes. It was just the sort of signing many Arsenal fans hoped Wenger would make in January 2014. Upon completing the deal, the Arsenal manager told the BBC:
He is a very talented young player, who can play in midfield or as a supporting striker.
He can play on the left or on the right, in fact, anywhere as an offensive player. Jose will be a great asset to our squad.
Reyes made his first appearance for the club as a second-half substitute against Manchester City in February. Although he did not score on that occasion, he did grab his first Arsenal goals with a brace in the FA Cup against Chelsea on February 15.
In the very same month, Arsenal faced Claudio Ranieri's team in the league for the second and final time. Just as it will be in 2013/14, the game was a Saturday lunchtime kick-off at Stamford Bridge.
Arsenal started poorly, conceding after just 27 seconds. However, after 15 minutes, an expertly curled ball from Dennis Bergkamp found Patrick Vieira, who strode beyond the defence before slotting home. The winner followed shortly afterwards, with Brazilian Edu tapping in after a fumble from Neil Sullivan. Once again, a Chelsea goalkeeper had gifted the victory to Arsenal.
The win at Stamford Bridge took Arsenal seven points clear of Chelsea. The Gunners' grip on the title was tightening.
Arsenal’s season was almost derailed by two cup exits in the space of a week. First, Manchester United eliminated them from the FA Cup. Then, a last-gasp goal from Wayne Bridge knocked the Gunners out of the Champions League.
With their hopes of a treble dashed, some wondered if Arsenal’s Premier League campaign might crumble. However, in their very next game, the Gunners responded with a stirring 4-2 victory over Liverpool. From that point on, it was plain sailing.
On the final day of the Premier League season, Arsenal overcame Leicester to complete a remarkable unbeaten season. Claudio Ranieri was sacked as Chelsea manager, and Jose Mourinho was promptly installed as his successor.
Mourinho is now back again to do battle with Arsene Wenger. Arsenal fans wait with baited breath to discover who will come out on top in 2014.
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