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Can it ever get better than this? Arsenal v Tottenham.

16 November 2002:

On this most memorable of memorable days Arsenal beat Tottenham 3-0 to go back to top of the league.  Not only that the match included the Premiership Goal of the Season by Henry.  He took the ball from inside his own half, beat most of the Tottenham defence, scored and ran all the way back to the other end.  You’ve probably seen the film of this 100 times.

And that night I remember asking, “Can it ever get better than this?”

For this game Sol Campbell came back to the centre of defence after recovering from a back injury while Rami Shaaban made his debut in the Premiership replacing David Seaman, who was himself injured.

The opening moments were frenetic as these games against the third best team in north London often are with no one taking control.  Any shots there are – including one from Gilberto – are from several miles out.

Then, after three minutes, Wiltord side-footed from the edge of the area but the assistant indicated something was wrong – although I’m not sure any of us could quite work out what.  We thought we’d scored, the assistant said no.  Tottenham fans bayed and jeered.

So then we had another go.  Bergkamp passed to Ljungberg again at the edge of the area, but Keller parried it out to… Henry also at the edge of the area, where he used to love to stand.  Ledley King cleared it off the line.

The first goal – the Henry goal of the season – was scored in the 13th minute.  Tottenham were starting to go frantic in the face of the bombardment as their fans down the clock end looked on in despair.  The jeering had stopped. I think they were just praying.

Henry brushed aside Matthew Etherington on the edge of our own area (quite what Henry was doing there at the time I’ve never worked out, but subsequent events suggested he had dropped his compass) and then simply took the ball and ran past the Tottenham midfield who huffed and puffed but had no chance of catching him.

Henry then moved around Dean Richards and L. King who must have wondered what the hell was happening.  One man beating the whole team?  Can’t be!  “Come back you brazen fellow” they must have been saying. Or something like that.

But before the words had time to form in their brains Henry had beaten Keller via a shot into the left-hand corner of the net.  It was still November and he had already scored 10.

On 26 minutes, for a reason that wasn’t quite clear at the time, Bergkamp was substituted, and instead on came Robert Pires to take over right midfield, with Wiltord moving into attack alongside Henry (when Henry wasn’t waiting in his own penalty area for another chance to run the entire length of the pitch).

Actually I suspect the substitution may have been a compass thing, with Wenger wanting Henry to be helped to find his way to the right end… although if that was so it didn’t work, as Pires doesn’t like sharing, as we found out later.

On 27 minutes Simon Davies was sent off for his second booking.  Arsenal took a deliberate position of not getting drawn into the atmosphere that was felt all around the ground, and so took it easy.  For three minutes.

Then on 31 minutes Gilberto crossed, Wiltord flicked it with his knee, and Henry scored a perfect goal.  But perhaps because he was not looking, or perhaps because the “betting syndicates” had got at him, or perhaps because he was feeling sorry for Tottenham, the assistant raised his flag.  Again.  No one was really bothered – everyone just knew there was more to come.

Pires almost got a goal just before half time with a free kick which left the keeper in totally the wrong position, rushing across his goal at the last second – but the ball just went wide.  Still it did make the keeper look silly.

On 55 minutes, Ljungberg gently took the ball away from Redknapp (always worth seeing), gave it to to Wiltord who passed onto Henry whose movement resulted in the aforementioned King falling over.  Henry gave the ball back to Freddie who tapped it in.  This time even an over-imaginative linesman couldn’t think of a reason to raise a flag.

Next up, Keller, having made a bit of a fool of himself with Pires free kick, tried the trick again, arrogantly standing off his line.  Pires looked up, measured the angle, calculated the distance, checked the slide rule, consulted the compass (that he should have given to Henry) and calculator that he kept in his shirt pocket for such moments, considered the wind speed, noted the position of the sun, adjusted for the forthcoming eclipse of the moon, and lobbed him.

Keller obliged with a pantomime performance of a desperate flip flapping movement and there we had it. Another wonder goal.

Wiltord however wanted one himself so he had a bash with one of those balls that only just misses the cross bar but then keeps on rising and rising and rising, and is stopped finally by the back of the stand.  Repair teams rushed in to shore up the structure as the game continued.

But there was more.  Pires, having got all his guidance equipment out, was putting in passes that no one has since matched until the days of Ozil.  He gave the ball to Henry.  Keller should have hidden, but he didn’t.  He ran out. A bizarre thing to do. Pires passed to Wiltord on six yards.  Wiltord put it into the net.  There was nothing else he could have done.

Nervous of the psychological damage that Tottenham was suffering, and being a humane man, Wenger took Henry off and let Francis Jeffers run around a bit.   Vieira came off too so Giovanni van Bronckhorst could get the feel of the turf.

I’m not sure we noticed.  We were just bouncing up and down up and down up and down up and down…

Shaaban

Luzhny Campbell Cygan Cole

Wiltord Vieira Gilberto Ljungberg

Bergkamp Henry

After the game the table looked like this…

    Pld W D L F A GD Pts
1 Arsenal 14 10 2 2 31 13 +18 32
2 Liverpool 13 9 3 1 24 10 +14 30
3 Chelsea 14 7 5 2 24 12 +12 26
4 Everton 13 7 2 4 16 15 +1 23
5 Manchester United 13 6 4 3 17 12 +5 22
6 Newcastle United 13 7 1 5 20 17 +3 22
7 Middlesbrough 14 6 3 5 16 11 +5 21
8 Blackburn Rovers 13 5 5 3 19 14 +5 20
9 Tottenham Hotspur 14 6 2 6 17 21 -4 20
10 Leeds United 13 5 2 6 17 16 +1 17

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