This weekend, Arsenal head to Wembley for an FA Cup Final against Hull City. The weight of expectation is enormous. Arsenal are competing not just to ensure their season finishes on a high, but to end a prolonged wait for silverware. Nine years ago, Arsenal lifted the FA Cup after a penalty-shootout victory over Manchester United. It’s a day that Gunners fans still hold dear.
Arsenal’s path to the final was relatively straightforward. This year, Arsene Wenger’s team have been fortunate enough to receive a series of home draws. The same was true in 2005. Arsenal played Stoke City, Wolverhampton Wanderers and Sheffield United in a succession of home ties. However, it was against the Blades that things got sticky. A late penalty from Michael Gray forced a replay, and at Bramall Lane a shootout was required to separate the sides. Arsenal then travelled to Bolton before dispatching Blackburn Rovers in the semi-final.
The final took place at Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium: The same ground where the Gunners had contested both the 2001 and 2002 finals. It was the fifth meeting between United and Arsenal in the 2004/05 season. Familiarity breeds contempt, and there was no love lost between the two teams: Earlier in the campaign, United had ended Arsenal’s 49-match unbeaten streak. The Gunners were hungry for revenge.
However, Arsenal had injury problems. Thierry Henry was the major absentee, whilst Sol Campbell was too short of match fitness to start. In the light of Henry’s unavailability, Wenger opted to ditch his traditional 4-4-2 system and line up in a more conservative 4-5-1. Although Wenger now uses one striker regularly, at the time it was a surprising and significant departure from his customary formation. Dennis Bergkamp was selected as the team’s lone striker, with Robert Pires and Jose Antonio Reyes offering support from the flanks.
Arsenal did not look comfortable in their makeshift setup. Manchester United dominated the first half, with Wayne Rooney and Ruud Van Nistelrooy forcing Jens Lehmann in to a series of impressive saves.
The second half didn’t get much better. In a bid to stem the tide, Arsene Wenger withdrew Dennis Bergkamp after 65 minutes, sending on Freddie Ljungberg. Ljungberg would later make a vital contribution, heading a Van Nistelrooy attempt on to his own crossbar to prevent what looked a certain goal.
The tide of United attacks kept on coming. Cristiano Ronaldo was tormenting Lauren, who had to tread carefully having been booked in the 59th minute. Nevertheless, Arsenal clung on for the whistle. Extra-time beckoned.
As the game entered the 30 extra minutes, an exhausted Arsenal were hanging on for dear life. It seemed like just a matter of time until United found a way past the heroic Lehmann. As extra-time approached its close, things went from bad to worse for Arsenal when Reyes was dismissed for a second bookable offence. He cynically nudged Ronaldo to the ground as the Portuguese winger threatened to break on the Arsenal goal. Trudging from the field, the Spaniard became only the second player in history to be sent off in an FA Cup Final.
However, Arsenal had made it to penalties. Suddenly, confidence swelled in the Arsenal ranks. Having been thoroughly outplayed for much of the game, they now had a 50-50 chance of lifting the trophy. United knew they had spurned multiple chances to win the cup, whereas the Gunners began to believe fortune might be favouring them.
So it proved. Van Nistelrooy converted United’s first penalty, but Lauren matched it. The next taker, Paul Scholes, saw his effort saved by the irrepressible Lehmann. Every other taker converted, meaning Patrick Vieira stepped up knowing that a successful kick would win the cup for Arsenal. Without hesitation, he lifted the ball high in to the top corner. Vieira roared, and the Gunners fans exploded: Arsenal had done it.
Arsenal fans weren’t able to enjoy much of the game, but made up for it with raucous celebrations. Vieira’s kick would be his last in an Arsenal shirt. It has become an iconic moment, emblematic of his courage under pressure.
Back in 2005, Arsenal found a way to win against all odds. However, it’s not a consistent trait. In 2011, in the League Cup Final against Birmingham, they conspired to lose despite being overwhelming favourites. This weekend, Arsenal fans will hope their team is able to create joyful memories rather than traumatic ones.
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