Being an Arsenal fan, I’ve been priviliged enough to witness dozens of quite legendary goals; Dennis Bergkamp’s sublime skill on Tyneside, Thierry Henry’s mazy runs against Spurs, Liverpool and Real Madrid, Robert Pires’ luscious lob over Schmeichel at Villa Park, the list is endless. For importance, aesthetic beauty and timing, there can only be one winner for me.
At 10 years old, I was mature enough to fully appreciate The Invincibles’ achievement yet still had the bundles of childhood enthusiasm to go berserk every time the ball hit the net, or drool over each touch Henry made. I knew that I wouldn’t see a team so successful, so unique and so attractive to watch ever again; therefore I ensured I made the most of every visit to Highbury.
Sunday 22nd August, 2004 is not a date that is instantly provokes flashbacks, but mention the opposition and result, and the majority of Gooners will go all nostalgic and warm and fuzzy inside. Middlesbrough were the guests; a struggling side who looked certain to be the next victims to the Arsenal steamroller that obliterated anything and everything in its path. Should defeat be avoided, Arsene Wenger’s side would equal Nottingham Forest’s record of 42 games unbeaten. The scene was set, as the North London sunshine beautifully illuminated Highbury’s carpet-like turf, the canvas on which Arsenal’s attackers would paint their masterpiece.
Following a long arcing pass from the back, Henry deftly lifted the ball over the exposed Mark Schwarzer to give the Gunners the perfect start. Spectators suspected it would be the first of many. Joseph-Desire Job thumped the visitors level before the break but the expectant mood was not dampened; everyone knew Arsenal would return in the second period and bag another two or three to seal a comfortable victory.
The swagger the club were demonstrating suddenly looked horribly arrogant as the game took an unexpected twist. Just moments after the interval, the hapless Pascal Cygan failed to deal with a long ball and Jimmy-Floyd Hasselbaink was on hand to lash the ball into the top corner. Things would get worse for the Champions, as Franck Quedrue’s speculative blast caught Jens Lehmann out of position, and the ball swerved past the German into the net to give Middlesbrough an outrageous 3-1 advantage. A sense of disbelief spread like a contagious virus. Arsenal had seemingly failed to break the records at the final hurdle.
The Gunners weren’t going to roll over, however and they hauled themselves back into the game through Dennis Bergkamp’s low drive. Hope restored, a wave of attacks would follow as the visitors begun to crumble under intense Arsenal pressure. An equaliser was found shortly after, as Robert Pires had the simple task of tapping the ball into an empty net from all of five yards after Henry had crossed.Cue an eruption of emotion in the Highbury stands as an embarrassing defeat looked to have been averted.
A shell-shocked Middlesbrough kicked off with the Arsenal fans still celebrating. The greatest goal I ever saw was about to occur within seconds of Pires’ leveller. A young Cesc Fabregas immediately won the ball back and drove towards the opposition goal with purpose. He slipped in Bergkamp, who in turn found, Jose Antonio Reyes. The forward cut inside a mesmerised Michael Reiziger before lashing an unstoppable strike with his weaker foot into the top corner. For those not fortunate to be at the game, Martin Tyler’s classic commentary added to the special moment: “it’s Reeeeeyeeees! Stand up for the Champions!”
The Spaniard’s career at Arsenal ultimately fizzled out, but he had an electric start to the 04/05 season, with this goal being the pinnacle of his time in North London. It was a goal that epitomised a side that was, and still remains, the greatest the Premier League has ever seen: quick off the mark, beautiful to watch and possessing an abundance of team spirit and belief; ironically something modern Arsenal teams have notoriously lacked. The ability to shift from a losing position to a winning position in a blink of an eye was typical of the Invincibles.
At my young age I had the capability of raucously celebrating two goals in 30 seconds. Some of the, shall we say, more experienced, fans struggled to keep up but everyone was equally ecstatic; the glorious sunshine a beautiful metaphor for the emotion in the stadium. Cliché alert: it really did raise the hairs on the back of your neck. It was confirmation that Arsenal really were indeed: “by far the greatest team, the world has ever seen.”
Thierry Henry sealed the game with a fifth late on but it was Reyes’ strike that everyone remembered, a wonderful contest and wonderful goal that will remain an all-time favourite; it truly was the greatest goal I ever saw.
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