When Arsene Wenger finally brings his lengthy tenure as Arsenal manager to an end and heads off into the sunset, he’ll probably reflect on the 2003/04 campaign as his proudest moment at the club.
The Gunners set a record that may never be equalled that year, going through an entire Premier League season without once sampling the bitter taste of defeat on the way to their second title in three years.
Perhaps, though, 2003/04 will also feature high up on Wenger’s list of regrets. Arsenal were unable to replicate their domestic dominance on the European stage, and their failure to beat Chelsea and advance to the semi-finals of the Champions League – from where, alongside Monaco, Jose Mourinho’s Porto and a Real Madrid side who went on to finish fourth in La Liga, they would have had an excellent chance of silverware – is surely a major source of disappointment for the Frenchman to this day. That feeling is presumably only exacerbated by the tantalising thought that Wenger could have irrevocably impaired the rise of chief foe Mourinho before it had truly begun.
Arsenal’s continental campaign got off to a miserable start, the north Londoners amassing just one point from the first nine available after a goalless draw with Lokomotiv Moscow and defeats by Inter (0-3) and Dynamo Kyiv (1-2). A nervy 1-0 victory over the Russians in matchday four kept their hopes of qualification for the knockout stage alive, but anything less than three points against Inter at San Siro would have left the Gunners on the brink.
The hosts approached the crunch clash in confident mood: after a run of five league games without a victory, a stretch which included a 3-1 reverse at the hands of rivals Milan, the Nerazzurri had won their three previous encounters against Chievo, Ancona and Reggina by an aggregate score of 11-0. Javier Zanetti, Fabio Cannavaro and Christian Vieiri were all included in Alberto Zaccheroni’s starting XI to face Arsenal, who would have been anticipating a tricky encounter in Italy’s second city.
Inter made their ambitions clear in the opening exchanges, with Marco Materazzi going closest to breaking the deadlock with a free-kick that didn’t have quite enough curl on it to sneak in at the near post. Vieri and Obafemi Martins also dragged strikes wide from outside the box, while the former was unable to get a clean connection on an Andy van der Meyde cross, but Zaccheroni would have been pleased with the manner in which his charges began the match, forcing Arsenal onto the back foot from the first whistle.
The visitors soon grew into the game, though, and it was they who landed the first blow on this late-November night. Shortly after Kanu had fired a left-footed effort off-target from 25 yards, Robert Pires, Ashley Cole and Thierry Henry produced a piece of sharp and snappy interplay that ended with the striker finding the bottom corner of the net from the edge of the penalty area.
Inter were back on terms eight minutes later, Vieiri’s shot taking a wicked deflection off Sol Campbell and looping over the head of a hapless Jens Lehmann, but Arsenal didn’t let such misfortune distract them from the task at hand.
Freddie Ljungberg, afforded far too much time and space six yards out, turned Henry’s pass home to edge Wenger’s men back in front after the interval, before Inter embarked on another period of sustained pressure, which led to chances for Cannavaro, Cristiano Zanetti, Van Der Meyde and Vieri.
Arsenal did well to hold out and soon regained their footing, with the speed of Henry posing particular problems for the Nerazzuri on the counter-attack. After twice going close to adding a third, the ex-Juventus man made his former club’s rivals pay with a terrific solo strike in the 81st minute; after sprinting clear of last-man Javier Zanetti on the halfway line, Henry slowed down, checked back and arrowed a powerful shot in off the post.
Edu then wrapped things up following a mistake from goalkeeper Francesco Toldo, before Pires added the cherry to the icing on the cake after some fine work down the right from substitute Jeremie Aliadiere.
When the final whistle blew, Wenger immediately turned to salute the jubilant travelling support, who at this stage were still united in their unwavering adoration for him. This was a sensational result against one of the continent’s heavyweights and, it seemed, a real statement of intent ahead of the knockout rounds that the Gunners would now almost certainly be featuring in.
Following a comfortable defeat of Celta Vigo in the last 16, Arsenal’s Champions League dreams were extinguished by Chelsea in the quarter-finals. Unfortunately for Wenger, this destruction of Inter was a stunning standalone success rather than a decisive step on the path to European glory.
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