Arsenal Returns to the Top

“I support two soccer teams: Arsenal and whoever is playing Manchester United”.

I’ve been a fan of English Premier League soccer for a very long time, and have religiously followed the weekly highlights show on Australian television. However, it was not until I lived in London that I chose a team to support. My housemate there was Luke Perry (not the one from Beverly Hills 90210), and aside from providing the quote that started this article, he imparted his passion for Arsenal, AKA ‘The Arse’.

Before we jump to the joyous present, it’s important to give a bit of background. The full details appear in Nick Hornby’s tour de force Fever Pitch. The short story though is that Arsenal has won a lot of English Premier League (or First Division) championships, but has more often frustrated its fans by coming 2nd or 3rd, usually after leading the competition for 37 of 38 weeks. Most recently, it has been the big spending Northerners of Manchester United that have leapfrogged Arsenal in the late stages of the season.

This being said, it gives me great pleasure to report that over the weekend of 23-25 April, Arsenal secured its 13th English championship. The season still has a few games to run, but neither Manchester United nor Chelsea can now overtake Arsenal. The other 17 teams have been out of contention for a very long time. It has been a spectacular league season. Arsenal is undefeated after 34 games, and are only four games away from the first undefeated league season since the season of 1888/89. This is not a misprint. Preston North End achieved the feat 115 years ago, and since then it has remained elusive.

So that’s where the satisfaction begins, but there are other highlights. There is a real sweetness to dominating Manchester United and Chelsea in this way. Manchester United is loathsome for three reasons: the ridiculous amounts paid for its players by Manager Sir Alex Ferguson; the poor behavior of its players off the pitch, and its general arrogant attitude. So The Arse is happy to have beaten them this year. Chelsea, on the other hand, is Arsenal’s London neighbor. However, it attracted negative press for being bought out by Russian Oil magnate Roman Abramovich.

‘Chelski’ then went on a spending spree, signing big names like Juan Veron, Claude Makelele, Adrian Mutu, Damian Duff and Hernan Crespo. For Arsenal to beat them proves that a successful team is more than the sum of its overpaid parts. Very satisfying indeed.

Arsenal had many great players in the season of 2003/2004. Most obviously Thierry Henry was prolific in the striking role, having knocked back 29 goals at the time of writing. This is just one goal short the ‘magic’ 30 goal mark, which has only been achieved three other times in the last decade (in 1999/2000 by Kevin Phillips, and in 1994/1995 and 1995/1996 by Alan Shearer as the last two years of his remarkable three-peat). In addition, the seasons of Robert Pires (14 goals to date), Sol Campbell, Ashley Col, Gilberto Silva and Kolo Toure have been impressive. The final highlight has been the goalkeeping of Jens Lehmann, who filled the huge shoes of David Seaman when he left the club last year. Lehmann has the best defensive record in the game, and has provided 13 clean sheets in his 33 starts this season.

So we close this chapter and look forward. Arsenal will be very proud of its success in the English Premier League this year, and will hope to extend this success next year. They will also hope to improve on their FA Cup and European Champions League performance (losing semi-finalists and losing quarter-finalists respectively this year). So, as the season ends and summer begins, Luke Perry and I, and millions of fans around the world will ask just one question: “bring on the treble?”

May 3, 2004
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