The Greatest Goal I Ever Saw Scored Against Arsenal: Gabriel Batistuta's Exocet At Wembley...
The Hit Man - Gabriel Batistuta.
The Victims – Tony Adams, Nigel Winterburn and David Seaman.
The Place – Wembley Stadium, London, England.
The Time – 74 minutes into the game, 27th October 1999.
The Event – Champions League Groups Stage Match
Wembley Stadium, ‘home’ to Arsenal football club in Europe for this season and the last, and in the shadows of the long departed ‘Twin Towers’, Fiorentina’s German midfielder Jorg Heinrich picks the ball up near the centre circle. Arsenal’s makeshift centre midfield of Patrick Vieira and Nelson Vivas (just on; for the tiring Emmanuel Petit, amid groans of despair from the watching Gooners) back off and allow the uncelebrated Heinrich the freedom of the next 20 metres of space. Heinrich skips in towards goal, jinking and feinting and looking reminiscent of his much more vaunted teammate, the mercurial Portuguese playmaker Rui Costa. Vieira, fatally, is strolling back and doesn’t put in a challenge. Tony Adams, the player, the captain, the legend, whose goal sealed the league title the year before against Everton at a barmy sun drenched Highbury, stands off for too long, and when he does commit, Heinrich, a tall, muscular German, holds him off and slips the ball diagonally to his right, straight to the feet of the prowling Gabriel Batistuta, the Argentine striker, who up until now, had been relatively quiet in a somewhat uninspiring game that was currently 0-0, mainly thanks to a profligate Arsenal attack, missing the form-hitting Thierry Henry in his debut season and a magnificent one man performance by Azzuri ‘keeper Francesco Toldo.
Batistuta collected the ball just inside the Arsenal box, in the right corner. A magnificent first touch killed the pass dead and a subtle feint showed Nigel Winterburn quickly inside, onto his weaker right foot. Winterburn fell for the trick, leaving him off-balance. Batistuta clips the ball to the right, and with Winterburn still finding his feet, loses out to Batistuta in the race to the ball. Winterburn, an England international, is powering off his favoured left foot now, but losing a two horse race with a lethal hit-man; who had already scored in two World Cup tournaments and for both of the fierce Buenos Aires rivals River Plate and Boca Juniors – indeed, ‘Batigol’ broke even the most hardened Serie A defenders out in a sweat with his goal scoring prowess on a weekly basis. Batistuta is forced into a tight angle by his push-off. David Seaman awaited the shot: hero in this very stadium for England against Scotland and Spain in Euro ’96 and for The Gunners eighteen months earlier in their victorious 2-0 FA Cup win against Alan Shearer-fired-Newcastle United, and in the form of his life – only last season had he conceded a mere seventeen goals in the league as Arsenal pushed Manchester United close to the title and the FA Cup, and was glove to glove with his only rival as ‘best goalie in the Premiership;’ Peter Schmeichel.
Seaman came off his line to close down the angle, which was getting narrower and narrower. Batistuta pulled back his right foot, the hammer cocked. Seaman, arms up and charging towards him, looked to have the near post covered and the far post safely hidden behind his tall and imposing frame. The right, Reebok-cladded boot of ‘Batigol’ connected with the Adidas ball with the ferocity of a black mamba’s strike. Winterburn was by now stretching. Streching and falling and failing to try to get that last minute, last gasp tackle in. The ball was struck true. The ball’s arch went up and arrowed like an Exocet missile into the far top hand corner.
From where this author was, behind that very goal, behind that very corner of the net, the ball looked like it had missed, and had merely rippled the netting behind the goal. The stadium hadn’t as such reacted, but as ‘Batigol’ wheeled away in his famous arms out-stretched celebration, it had hit home that indeed, a goal of rare calibre had been witnessed, and a year after seeing the sublime Dynamo Kyiv team lead by Andrei Shevchenko and Sergei Rebrov come away from Wembley undefeated against Arsenal, it looked like again that Arsenal’s Wembley experiment had merely proven to inspire a ‘lesser’ team. The irony is, Fiorentina would go on to score an even better goal in that group – Mauro Bressan’s effort in the dead-rubber against Barcelona was worth a thousand ‘Goal of the…’ trophies. But Batistuta’s amazing, arrowed effort is still the best goal I have seen live. Arsenal would go on to lose 0-1, with Davor Suker almost equalising, but hitting the post instead.