Arsenal's Best Italian Jobs

As Arsenal take on a formidable looking Napoli side tonight, one die-hard Arsenal fan reminisces about the Gooners' five best European nights in the club's history.
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1) Arsenal 2 Juventus 0 March 2006

The King is Dead, Long Live The King.

One thing that people tend to forget about Highbury is how on those dark, evocative European nights the venerable ground came alive. In the darkness noise rolled around the place creating an atmosphere that was a match for any daytime games. Especially if it was an important game.

This game versus Juventus in our final season at Highbury was an example of this. We started the first leg of our Champions League quarter final against La Vecchia Signora with no little trepidation and ended it in throes of ecstasy. This was the night that 19 year old Cesc Fabregas usurped the title of midfield maestro from the previous incumbent: the legendary and still much loved and venerated Patrick Viera, the most powerful midfielder I have ever seen at Arsenal.

The Frenchman playing his first game back at Arsenal since his move to Juve was in possession in our half before Cesc dived in with a fearless sliding tackle that won the ball off the man who came from Senegal. To this day I have never heard a tackle cheered so loudly. It summed up our new order. A new generation of youth was to sweep away the Invincibles to even greater glory. We won the game 2-0 that night to ease into the semi-finals of the Champions League after a 0-0 draw in Turin and were 17 minutes from eternity in Paris. The future looked full of promise. If only we knew.

2) Arsenal 0 AC Milan 0 Super Cup 1995

Sebastiano Rossi, Mauro Tassotti, Paolo Maldini, Demetrio Albertini, Alessandro Costacurta, Franco Baresi, Roberto Donadoni, Marcel Desailly, Marco Simone, Dejan Savićević, Daniele Massaro.

What a team. More to the point what a defence.

February 1995. Nine months on after one of the most complete destructions in a European Cup Final, namely Milan 4, Barcelona 0 the team that won that memorable night in Athens played at Highbury in the first leg of the Super Cup. I had been at the Parken Stadion as Arsenal had triumphed in Copenhagen the May before just as I would also go to the San Siro in the second leg of this tie – but as a young lad I naturally assumed European trophies would be a regular thing. Unfortunately 19 years on, I’m still waiting to see my second European trophy win in the flesh.

That night what stuck in the mind after this 0-0 was just how organised and professional the Milan back line were. They were never pulled out of position; they held their shape and always looked composed. But what I will happily tell my grandchildren about the great Maldini and Baresi when they played against The Arsenal was that they simply looked as though they had all the time in the world. Great players have that ability to slow everything down, to make their movements look as though they have far more time and space than they do in reality.

We simply never looked like scoring, even if the stage was set for an emotional evening with the return of Paul Merson from his FA ban for telling the truth about his addictions. It wasn’t to be a fairy-tale ending for the Merse, still one of the best loved ex Arsenal players in our history but I will always recall that mighty Milan back line.

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3) Arsenal 1 Torino 0 European Cup Winners Cup Quarter Final 2nd Leg, March 1994

I had been out to Turin for the first leg of our ECWC quarter final – the first English team to play in Italy since Heysel. That trip alone deserves a book devoted to it. But we came away from that evening in the cavernous but soulless Stadio delle Alpi with a vital 0-0. (Was it a surprise my two trips there over two decades with Arsenal both ended 0-0 when the ground managed to unite both Torino and Juve fans in their utter dislike of the stadium?)

The scene was set for the famed Arsenal back line to defend against the might of Andrea Silenzi and Beppe Signori – this was still in the early days of the Premier League when Italian players had a mystique about them magnified by the legendary James Richardson and his Football Italia at the time – still the best ever results round up show and magazine in the history of UK football programming. Although the Torino strike force was intermittently threatening the reality proved far less glamorous. Without forcing too many clear cut chances against our legendary back four an early Kevin Campbell goal meant it was 1-0 to the Arsenal and a semi-final vs. PSG where the song was eventually born at half time in the Park Des Princes. (If we’re talking nostalgia that was another trip that deserves a stage to itself, but I digress.)

Highbury was delirious, gorgeous George was delighted and the team ploughed on through the Cup Winners Cup that offered arguably a stronger quarter final line up than the Champions League – even if the AC Milan team that triumphed was far and away the best team in Europe that year. Mind you in my young inexperienced and dyed in the wool red and white tinted glasses Arsenal and their exploits in the ECWC weren’t far off it – even with a midfield of Hillier, Jensen, Morrow and Davis. (*Eyes moisten thinking about that Cup run even now.*)

4) Arsenal 3 Sampdoria 2 ECWC Semi Final, April 1995

I still shake my head now thinking about that game. Against the might of Zenga, Vierchowod, Siniša Mihajlović, Lombardo, Jukovic, Roberto Mancini, Ruud Gullit and, er, David Platt we triumphed 3-2 in a tempestuous, rip-snorting game under the Highbury lights with the unlikely Steve Bould scoring two goals and Ian Wright, Wright, Wright the other.

Mancini was quoted afterwards as saying: ‘to lose 3-2 is a good result as we are formidable at the Luigi Ferrari’. In the end, in a game that sorely raised our collective blood pressure, we saw Arsenal win on penalties after losing 3-2 on the night. Sat high up in the Italian end that night after all manner of travails with Genoa’s caribineieri (don’t ask) we celebrated long and loud after an evening that went into the annals of Arsenal’s European history.

5) Arsenal 2 Lazio 0, CL, Group Stage, 2000

This game sticks in the memory purely because we were so dominant. It was the first time I thought, hang on, we actually deserve to play at this level. Freddie ran a lethargic Lazio team ragged scoring both goals. The Lazio players looked intimidated and wary. A bit like us in the return game in Rome. But that’s a different story.

So with Napoli managed by Benitez and Arsenal summer target Higuain playing their first competitive game against us tonight in a tough group I think the Grove may well be in for a treat. Especially as I have heard so much about their crazy fans. I am toying with the idea of heading over to Naples for the return game if there is anything riding on it, but one thing I can be sure of is if tonight’s game is a tenth as good as the games listed above we are in for a treat.

Follow Layth on twitter: @laythy29

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