1 – 0 Pires (7)
1 – 1 Scharner (10)
1 – 2 Thompson (33)
2 – 2 Henry (35)
3 – 2 Henry (56)
4 – 2 Henry (76)
An emotional day at Highbury when the Marble Halls hosted their last meaningful football match before becoming homes for the professional classes. Most of the English media has been filled with euologies from former players – Brady and Charlie George were two that I saw – and Celebrity Fans – Ray Davies’ in The Times was like reading one of his songs. But when push came to shove, it was the football on the pitch that mattered today and the events ten miles across the capital.
A tense day started with Tottenham in the driving seat, the same situation as a decade ago when their nerve failed them at Newcastle to give Arsenal UEFA Cup football in Bergkamp’s first season. This time round, a bout of food poisoning put their game in doubt and gave them a ready made excuse for a lack of bottle. Unconfirmed reports suggest that the hotel’s French chef “saw nothing” wrong on the kitchen floor.
The game itself was a cracker, containing everything that you could wish for in the final match at Highbury, ranging from the sublime to the ridiculous. Full credit to Wigan for refusing to turn up and be the ceremonial whipping boys. Arsenal opened the scoring in the seventh minute with what could well be Robert Pires last League goal for the club. Reyes swung in a deep corner from the right that was headed back towards the goalline for what would have been another corner. Unusually Reyes kept the ball in play with a deft touch that enabled Fabregas to cross in for Sol Campbell to head goalwards and an unmarked Pires to bundle the ball home at the second attempt. Nerves settled for two minutes until Thompson swung in a freekick for Scharner to prod home, his late run into the box not being picked up by the defence.
After that, both teams had strong penalty claims turned down. I still cannot fathom how Uriah Rennie did not give Wigans, Campbell’s clumsy challenge on Roberts bringing the Wigan forward crashing to earth. When Jackson took Reyes legs away minutes later, it became obvious that the referee would only give a penalty if momumental stupidity took place, more on that later.
Wigan then took a shock lead when with a free kick reminscent of Steve Williams goal at Doncaster twenty years ago, Thompson caught Lehmann napping at his near post with a thirty five yard shot.
All that seemed to do was infuriate Arsenal. Two minutes later, Hleb won the ball in the middle of the Wigan half, fed Pires who slid Henry through on goal, where the ball was duly put. The second half saw Arsenal play some of the best football of the season but it took a monumental cock-up for them to take the lead. Having been set up as the villain of the piece when he scored his freekick, Thompson then turned into a Highbury Hero with a Steven Gerrard-esque pass to Thierry Henry who promptly took the ball around the keeper and into the empty net.
The match then took a step into the surreal. Johanssen came on as a replacement for Thompson after 73 minutes, accompanied by Ljungberg for Pires. They both made their way into the box. Reyes hit the freekick deep into the area, Campbell headed the ball upwards and across the goal, Henry controlled a flick into Ljungberg’s path who was bundled to the ground by Johanssen. Having not touched the ball, Johanssen was promptly sent off. By the time he had reached the dressing room, Henry had taken a Flintoff-esque run-up to drill the ball into the net, sending Filan the wrong way, kissing the turf afterwards.
What more could you ask for in the final match? Henry with a hattrick and Champions League qualifier place secured. It screws up the planning for next years pre-season but it is better to be in the qualifiers than waiting for UEFA Cup football. And it does not seem to have done Liverpool any harm as we approach the end of this season.