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A Bridge Too Far For The Less-Than-Invincible Gunners

They say have no regrets, but one regret I have had for two decades is not being able to get a ticket for Highbury on 6th April 2004, arguably one of the greatest nights in the club’s history up to that point.

After a tense 1-1 draw at Stamford Bridge, Chelsea faced a daunting second leg of the Champions League quarter-final at Highbury against an Arsenal team undefeated in the League that season. Claudio Ranieri’s Chelsea were in second place four points behind. The North London side also had a game in hand and were looking a very good title bet. Chelsea had the unenviable record of not having beaten Arsenal in their previous seventeen encounters, though their form in the first-leg gave cause for a degree of optimism, as did their hugely impressive record of five away European wins out of five that season, with no goals conceded. For the winners, the prize of being first London side in a European Cup semi-final for 32 years.

Chelsea, who had lost 2-1 at Highbury in the FA Cup two months earlier, warmed up for the return game with a weekend 1-0 win at White Hart Lane, whereas The Gunners maybe showed a chink in their armour, losing an FA Cup semi-final to Manchester United, ending premature talk of a Manchester United-style treble.

There was much press talk of new owner Roman Abramovich’s burning desire for his club to be recognised as a European powerhouse, something a Champions League trophy in the boardroom would definitely establish. There was no shortage of stories about the Chelsea hierarchy being unhappy with the hugely-likeable Ranieri, who was under real pressure to bring home a trophy that season, with tales of them courting Sven Goran Eriksson to take over. The league title was still possible, but unlikely, so victory at Highbury was arguably crucial to his future.

Centre-back Marcel Desailly, dismissed in the first-leg, was suspended. With Carlo Cudicini out with a broken bone in his hand, Marco Ambrosio was between the posts. Captain John Terry was a doubt but declared fit. The press debated whether Herman Crespo or Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink would lead the line but in the end, Chelsea started with an unchanged side for only the third time that season, as ‘The Tinkerman’ resisted the temptation to reshuffle his line-up  :-  Ambrosio; Melchiot, Gallas, Terry, Bridge; Parker, Makelele, Lampard, Duff; Hasselbaink, Gudjohnsen. The visitors bench included potential gamechangers in Crespo, Mutu and Joe Cole.

Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal side was an extremely strong one, including Ashley Cole, Patrick Viera, Robert Pires and Thierry Henry with Dennis Bergkamp on the bench. With away goals counting in the event of a draw, a 0-0 draw was no good to Ranieri’s side, who were 3-1 with Ladbrokes to win in 90 minutes. Eriksson watched on from the directors box.

Match highlights can be seen here .

Chelsea mirrored the in-your-face approach United had successfully employed three days earlier, closing down their opponents and giving them little time on the ball . Both sides had chances in a competitive first half, with Damien Duff, Frank Lampard and Eidur Gudjohnsen going close for Ranieri's men, but it was Jose Antonio Reyes who put the home side ahead right on half-time. Chelsea now needed two goals to stay in the tie, so Ranieri made an attacking substitution at the break, replacing Scott Parker with wide man Jesper Gronkjaer. This move severely restricted Ashley Cole’s forays forward.

Six minutes into the second half, Claude Makelele’s long range shot was only pushed out by Jens Lehman and Lampard pounced on the ball and tucked away the equaliser, running to the three thousand or so jubilant away supporters in the corner of the Clock End to celebrate. Because of the away goals rule, however, Chelsea needed to score again. Should they do so, Arsenal would need to score two so the tie, of such importance to both sides, was on a knife-edge.

The game continued to ebb and flow, and Ambrosio made decent saves from Reyes and Kolo Toure. Gronkjaer’s running was unsettling the home defence and Lampard went close with a long range snapshot, but time moved all too quickly on. Joe Cole and Crespo were therefore brought on by Ranieri to try and turn the game with ten minutes left.

The away support, aware of the imperative to score again, roared their side on, as nerves began to affect the home players and their support. A pass from Cole gave Gudjohnsen a great chance to seal it with five minutes left, but his effort was superbly cleared off the line by Ashley Cole and it looked as though the hosts might prevail.

Then, with just three minutes left, Wayne Bridge cemented his place in Chelsea folklore. Bursting forward, he played a superb one-two with Gudjohnsen and fired gloriously home from ten yards.

Bridge fires home the crucial goal

The away end erupted, knowing that a broken Arsenal were not going to score two in such a short space of time. The whistle went, Chelsea had epically won 2-1, 3-2 on aggregate, and the euphoric away support celebrated long and loud both inside and outside the ground, as their disbelieving North London counterparts slunk silently away, out of two cup competitions in three days.

And celebrates with Crespo

Bridge, interviewed post-match backed Ranieri, insisting ‘If it is possible, let him stay…All the lads get on well with him.’ The manager, in delirious tears at the final whistle, had previously described himself as a ‘dead man walking.’ He archly commented ‘It’s difficult to kill me. I may be ‘dead’ but will continue to ork. I don’t stand still.’ He continued ‘can we win the Champions League? Why not...everyone was going crazy in the dressing room as we have made history.’ Lampard felt it was ‘the best night of my career’ and reiterated the manager’s belief that they could win the Champions League.

Through his spokesman, Abramovich told the Evening Standard ‘Chelsea played great, and I think the team showed the Russian spirit to hold on, to fight. This is a great result. We are now waiting for Monaco’ who they had been drawn to face in the semi-final.

Henry Winter, in the Daily Telegraph, picked out Lampard and Terry for particular praise for their unstinting efforts. The same paper praised Chelsea’s team spirit but saw Arsenal, out of two cups in three days, as ‘the kings of cracking up’ undone by a ‘more resolute and spirited’ side.

Ambrosio had an excellent game in the Chelsea goal. His counterpart Lehman was criticised for only parrying out Makelele’s shot to Lampard and later produced an interesting excuse. The ball. The type of Nike balls used was changed between the group games and the knockout stage and the keeper claimed the swerve deceived him so he could not catch it.

Years later Wenger admitted he should maybe have prioritised the Champions League and rested some players for the FA Cup semi-final. Mind you, Chelsea played a hard game at Tottenham the previous weekend so were hardly fresh themselves.

Ranieri’s players had stepped up and proved themselves against top opponents under such testing conditions and proved themselves serious contenders for major honours going forward. Chelsea, in the semi-final for the first time, were favourites to beat Monaco in the semi-final but were surprisingly eliminated and Ranieri paid the widely-expected price, dismissed at the season end and replaced by Jose Mourinho.

Arsenal won the Premier League undefeated, creating their ‘Invincibles’ side, finishing twelve points ahead of second place Chelsea. Both qualified for the Champions League the following season. The Blues won the league the following season and have won it a further four times since. Arsenal have failed to follow up that 2004 victory and, at the time of writing, seem fated to blow another title chance. They remain 2-0 behind Chelsea on European Cup wins, as well.


Tim Rolls

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