The giant, round Champions League flag ripples between its legion of bearers in the centre circle just as the excitement does amongst the crowd of 35,472 fans. The familiar anthem by Tony Britten begins and the breaths of many around the world habitually grow slower and deeper just for a second. Then the heart rates raise as the shiny metallic Handel inspired majesty builds purposefully towards its crescendo. And then they raise.
Die Meister. Die Besten. Les grandes équipes. The champions.
Tuesday 28th March 2006. The final season at Highbury before Arsenal moved to the Emirates. Champions League Quarter Final. Two genuine European heavyweights going head-to-head. Arsenal v Juventus. The Gunners v The Old Lady. England v Italy. Tradition abounds.
Patrick Vieira’s first return to the club where he lifted three league titles and three FA Cups. A hero’s return, perhaps. It seemed so. Along with that flag and excitement, applause and cheers rippled towards the Frenchman at kick-off. Tradition abounds.
An 18-year-old Spanish midfielder living in club digs in Barnet with Philippe Senderos is cast in Vieira’s shadow. The effervescent pretender presents a challenge, but surely one that the battle-hardened Frenchman is capable of taking in his rangy stride. Unknown to most, the old master is about to be cast into the shadow of the precocious apprentice. Tradition rebounds.
Patrick Vieira was signed for £3.5 million from Milan almost ten years earlier in the summer of 1996 as an advanced present of sorts for incoming Arsenal boss Arsene Wenger, who had managed to divert his impending move to Ajax towards North London. Fabregas was nine at the time.
His new teammates held reservations about the young Frenchman’s physique. They were soon dispelled once he took to the training pitch.
“I had never seen a midfield player like that – he was almost feline in his movements, so tall and elegant” – Ian Wright
Vieira soon became a dominating box-to-box midfielder at Arsenal, combining elite, considered technical craft with ferocious, combative tenacity. Dennis Bergkamp simply labelled him “the first modern midfielder”.
He forged a great partnership with countryman Emmanuel Petit at the heart of The Gunners midfield in the 1997-98 season as Arsenal won the league. They would win the league again in 2001-02, after which Tony Adams retired and Vieira assumed the captain’s armband.
Months earlier, the occasionally volatile Frenchman reacted angrily to questions about his future after exiting the Champions League at the Quarter Final stage. He suggested that the Arsenal board should invest more heavily in bolstering the first team squad.
Nevertheless, he remained and was the heartbeat of the famous 2003-04 Invincibles, still widely regarded as the greatest team in the Premier League era. Graceful yet physically imposing and able to handle themselves if things got a bit agricultural, they espoused so many of the qualities of their leader.
In the 2005 FA Cup Final, Vieira scored the winning penalty in the shootout that saw them defeat Manchester United and his great rival, Roy Keane. That was to be his last action for Arsenal.
That summer, Juventus came in with a £13.7 million bid. Aware that his captain’s performances had begun to show signs of deterioration and of the emergence of a young Spanish midfielder, Wenger accepted the offer.
Francesc Fàbregas had come through the Barcelona youth academy at the fabled La Masia alongside Lionel Messi. Sensing that opportunities may be hard to come by in Catalonia, Fabregas joined Arsenal in September 2003, aged just 16. He soon became Arsenal’s youngest ever first team player at 16 years 177 days when he featured against Rotherham United in the League Cup.
He didn’t feature in the league during the Invincibles season, understandable for a 16-year-old central midfielder. It didn’t take him much longer though. At the beginning of the 2004-05 season, Vieira suffered an injury and the Spaniard replaced the Frenchman in the lineup for four successive games. Injuries to other first-team players such as Gilberto Silva saw Fabregas pick up further minutes.
By the end of that season, he had grown in importance significantly, starting that 2005 FA Cup Final. Clearly Wenger saw that Vieira could be a barrier to the progress of his protégé. Straightaway Fabregas was given Vieira’s number 4 shirt. Doubts were expressed by fans and media alike about the Spaniard, much smaller in stature to Vieira, being able to impose himself physically when required.
When Fabregas forced his way into the Arsenal first team in 2005, he said of Vieira:
“For me, he’s the best in the world. I can learn a lot from him.”
The truest test would come soon enough.
Both sides had topped their groups convincingly, Arsenal finishing above Ajax and Juventus above Bayern Munich.
Fabio Capello was manager of Juve at the time. They were eight points clear at the top of Serie A. They would go on to win the league but would be relegated to Serie B for their part in the Calciopoli scandal.
The season before, Liverpool had knocked The Old Lady out of the competition at the same stage en route to winning the competition in Istanbul. For all their domestic dominance, their record against English teams was not all that strong.
As mentioned, Arsenal were in their final, 93rd season at Highbury before transitioning to the Emirates. They would go on to finish fourth this season, just pipping Tottenham. Their Champions League run would be of more interest, however.
Thierry Henry assumed the captain’s armband left vacant by the departing Vieira. It was Henry’s brilliant solo goal that gave them a narrow 1-0 victory against Real Madrid at the Bernabeu in the previous round. The Gunners then managed to cling on for a goalless draw at Highbury.
Juventus, meanwhile, required the away goals rule to progress against German side Werder Bremen.
Arsenal v Juventus was the most tantalising tie to come out of the Quarter Final draw, with the first leg at Highbury.
It hadn’t escaped many people’s attention that this was to be Vieira’s first return to Highbury. Although his new side were comfortably top of their league, it hadn’t been a seamless transition for the Frenchman at Stadio delle Alpi.
In the days leading up to the game, the ‘apprentice vs the master’ tagline was already being touted, as this article in The Telegraph suggests.
Wenger’s words before the game were those of refreshing confidence:
He said that he had been “supremely confident” before the Real Madrid game and that he was “just as confident this time.”
“Beating a team like Juventus can allow us to go a step higher. Because we have knocked Real Madrid out without being favourites, I now believe we can also knock Juventus out and that can help us to grow.”
It was clear Wenger was approaching this match with no fear. He just needed his side to do the same.
Two very strong sides were named. Fabregas started in the heart of the Arsenal midfield, just as Vieira did for Juventus. The average age of the Arsenal side was a young 25.
There was a return to London soil for Adrian Mutu after his disgraced spell at Chelsea. Sol Campbell and Freddie Ljungberg were ruled out injured for the Gunners.
The sides were as follows:
Arsenal (4-4-1-1): Lehmann, Eboue, Touré, Senderos, Flamini; Pires, Gilberto Silva, Fabregas, Reyes; Hleb; Henry
Juventus (4-4-2): Buffon, Zambrotta, Cannavaro, Thuram, Zebina; Camoranesi, Vieira, Emerson, Mutu; Trezeguet, Ibrahimovic
Perhaps predictably, Juventus tried to be physically imposing with Arsenal. Vieira gave away a free-kick for a foul on Fabregas inside two minutes, the intent to lay down a marker clear.
Fabregas remained unflustered by the situation, displaying the sort of confidence his manager had talked of pre-match.
As the game wore on, it became increasingly apparent that Vieira was troubled. He had refused to address his past connection with the North London club in the build-up and the apprehension seemed to transmit to his performance.
In contrast, Arsenal attacked with dynamism and verve in the opening exchanges. Fabio Cannavaro and Lillian Thuram, a centre back pairing straight out of a fantasy football dream, were clearly unsettled. Fabregas dragged a shot wide after collecting a trademark deft flick from Robert Pires and Gianluigi Buffon saved from Kolo Toure.
Thierry Henry seemed to be exercising his shooting range, sending a few shots and free-kicks towards, but not troubling, Buffon in the away team’s goal.
At around 40 minutes, Fabregas tripped Vieira, immediately offering apologies. He made no attempt to apologise one minute later when he put the Gunners ahead.
An excellent tackle by Pires dispossessed Vieira and led to Arsenal’s opening goal shortly before half time. He fed Henry who set up Fabregas for the first goal, steering home into corner of the net with a low strike from 20 yards, going through Thuram’s legs. Buffon didn’t move.
A minute after the opener, Henry went close with a tight-angled effort and the home team could have been almost out of sight at the interval.
The Old Lady nearly came roaring back into the contest early in the second half after David Trezeguet appeared to have played Zlatan Ibrahimovic through, but Kolo Toure made a superb covering tackle.
Arsenal continued to counter with speed, direction and hunger. Buffon was forced into further saves from Henry, Fabregas and Aleksandr Hleb. The second goal continued to elude them until Henry came up with the all-important contribution.
It came from of course from Fabregas, driving forward on the right and feeding Henry. He had plenty of time to collect a pass from the youngster that was slightly behind him and slotted home into an empty net after the Spaniard had teased Buffon away from the goal he guarded so stoically.
That Vieira gets little mention in this description of the encounter tells its own story. Jose Antonio Reyes was absolutely outstanding for Arsenal on the night and Vieira’s name was taken by Swedish referee Peter Fröjdfelt for a poor tackle on the slick Spanish winger. It meant he would miss the second leg. It’s not difficult to imagine the frustration, perhaps even resentment, of Vieira as his former employers caressed the ball around his old stomping ground with such fervour.
Juventus were left in a mess, brushed aside by Arsenal. If the Old Lady was looking resplendent at the beginning of the evening in the esteemed surroundings of North London, less than two hours later they were a pale, frail, bewildered figure bereft of any sense of direction.
Mauro Camoranesi and Jonathan Zebina were both dismissed late on for second yellows, leaving Juventus even more frail with nine men by the time the Swede had mercy.
Vieira was exhausted by the 85th minute. Thierry Henry toyed with his former captain and countryman with the kind of Va Va Voom that Renault hired him for.