Arsenal’s run in the 2005/06 Champions League: When The Gunners came so close to European glory

Arsenal vs Barcelona 2006

It’s been five years since Arsenal have played in the Champions League. The Gunners have failed to qualify for the European tournament under three different managers now, with their most recent manager Mikel Arteta failing to qualify for the last three years despite being given over £250 million to improve the team in that timeframe.

Given their inability to make the Champions League in recent years, on top of not having great stints in the competition in previous years, it has the Gunners faithful looking back on their 2005/06 Champions League run with great fondness and wondering why the club has declined since then.

So in this piece, I wanted to focus on Arsenal’s Champions League run during the 2005/06 season and take a look at how The Gunners almost became the first London side to win the Champions League.

The group stages

The Gunners were drawn into Group B which consisted of Dutch side Ajax, Swiss outfit FC Thun and Cezch Republic giants Sparta Prague. In their opening game against Thun, Arsene Wenger’s side won the match 2-1 thanks to a late Dennis Bergkamp goal, this was despite having fellow Dutch striker Robin Van Persie sent off during the game.

Their next group stage match was against Ajax in Amsterdam, Arsenal went 2-0 up after 70 minutes courtesy of Swedish winger Freddie Ljungberg and French winger Robert Pires. Ajax did get a goal back within a minute but The Gunners held on to win their first two group stage games of the Champions League.

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Next up was another away game, this time in Prague where Arsenal would dispatch the Czech giants 2-0 thanks to a Thierry Henry brace. Wenger’s men then played Sparta Prague again in the fourth group game at Highbury and would comfortably beat them again, this time by a 3-0 scoreline from Henry and a Van Persie double.

Arsenal’s final two groups stage games were an away game against Thun, in which The Gunners won 1-0 thanks to a Pires penalty near the 90th-minute mark and a home tie against Ajax, which ended in a goalless draw at Highbury. After all the group stage matches had been played, Wenger’s men topped the group with 16 points and would advance into the knockout stages of the competition.

Although The Gunners had played really well in all of their group matches, the knockout phase would be the ultimate test as they face better teams with more quality in the matches to come.

The Last 16 Phase: Real Madrid

Arsenal would face Real Madrid in the last 16 of the Champions League, a difficult tie to say the least. The galacticos included top-class players like Zinedine Zidane, David Beckham, Brazilian Ronaldo, Sergio Ramos, Roberto Carlos etc. So it wouldn’t be easy for The Gunners to advance to the next round.

It indeed proved to be that way as neither side could be separated through the first half of the opening leg in Madrid. Despite the quality of both teams, they went into the halftime interval at 0-0 with Real Madrid having the better opportunities to break the deadlock. But just a couple of minutes into the second half, a brilliant piece of individual brilliance from Thierry Henry gave Arsenal the lead at the Bernabeu.

Cesc Fabregas fed Henry in the centre circle and the striker held off Ronaldo and skipped past Alvaro Mejia and Guti before racing into the area and muscling past Sergio Ramos. He then planted an angled shot past Casillas and into the far corner of the net. It was a special goal to give The Gunners that all-important away goal and control of the tie in Madrid.

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That goal seemed to stun the Real Madrid players, who tried to muster up decent opportunities to get themselves level. Meanwhile, Arsenal were looking to extend their lead on the counter-attack and potentially put the tie away from the Madrid side.

Despite the home side’s best efforts, they couldn’t find an equaliser and Arsene Wenger walked away from the game with a huge advantage for his side as they headed into the second leg at Highbury on the 8th of March.

Real Madrid knew they had to score to get themselves back into the tie and thus threw everything they had at the Arsenal defence.  Raul had an early chance but his effort was superbly saved by Jens Lehmann in the Arsenal goal.

The Gunners could’ve extended their lead of the tie when  Jose Antonio Reyes hit the bar in the first half and Thierry Henry grazed the post twice from long range after the interval. Both sides knew how impeccable the next goal was, and so both sides tried desperately to ensure nothing could be given away.

Arsenal fans could hardly watch as the match drew to its final few moments, Madrid again tried everything to get an equalising goal but The Gunner’s defence was dogged, determined, skilful and swift to deny any Real comeback.

The final whistle blew at Highbury and it was more of a sense of relief than celebration from the Arsenal fans as their side managed to hold off a star-studded Real Madrid team to win the tie and advance to the quarter-finals of the Champions League.

The Quarter-Finals: Juventus

Juventus were up next in the quarter-finals of the competition and this time it would beThe Gunners who would be at home in the first leg. Similarly to the first leg of the previous round, there wasn’t much to separate the two teams throughout the majority of the first half. Both sides had their chances, but with just five minutes to go in the first half, Arsenal were the ones to take the lead.

Pires won the ball on the right and flicked the ball inside to his compatriot in midfield. Henry spotted Fabregas darting into the area and his pass was perfect. The 18-year-old cushioned the ball and then slipped his shot between the legs of Lilian Thuram and past the flat-footed Gianluigi Buffon.

In the second half, Juventus seemed re-energised Toure provided a brilliant tackle to deny Ibrahimovic while Lehmann also had to shepherd several crosses whipped in from the flanks.

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However, their pressure began to fade as The Gunners looked to extend their lead after a number of chances were created by Wenger’s men. With Fabregas and Hleb both having decent chances to give Arsenal a 2-0 advantage. Then in the 69th minute, they got their two-goal cushion.

Hleb slipped a ball to Fabregas just outside the area. His presence attracted Buffon forward so, when the youngster squared to Henry 12 yards out, the captain had the relatively simple task of hooking the ball into the unguarded net.

This sent the Arsenal faithful into pandemonium at Highbury as they now had full control of the game and can start to relax a bit for the rest of the match.

Just a minute after the goal though, former captain Patrick Vieira was booked for Juventus and would miss the second leg. The same went for  Camoranesi, who was sent off with four minutes to go after receiving his second yellow card.

And to compound even more misery for The Old Lady, Jonathan Zebina was given his marching orders after receiving his second yellow card of the game with a minute left to play. Reducing Juve’s to 9 men before the final whistle.

With a 2-0 advantage going into the second leg in Turin, Wenger knew his team can control the game as they did in the first leg as Juventus would have to chase the game in order to get back into the tie.

The opening stages were largely subdued, with Juve trying to get an early goal knowing that an away goal for Arsenal would essentially kill off the tie. Despite how hard-working the Juventus players were, it was There was not much in the way of quality. On the quarter-hour, Jens Lehmann was sent scrambling across his area after Gianluca Zambrotta let fly from a distance.

Arsenal were looking dangerous themselves in the first half but they couldn’t find that elusive away goal that would seal their semi-final place.

They continued to look dangerous after the halftime interval as Henry looked to get himself on the scoresheet but his touch let him down as he moved toward Juve’s goal.

The hosts got more desperate to find a way back into the tie, Lehmann clutched a defected drive-by Ibrahimovic, with the Swede then setting up Nedved but Arsenal’s keeper pulled off his first real save of the night.

Hleb and Ljungberg could’ve sealed the tie for The Gunners late on but they couldn’t take their chances, not that it mattered though as they held the Turin side to a 0-0 draw on the night and won the tie overall by 2-0. Sending them through to their first semi-final of a top European competition in the club’s history.

The Semi-Finals: Villarreal

The Yellow Submarine of Villarreal awaited them in the semi-finals, and considering this would be the last European game at Highbury before their move to the Emirates the following season, The Gunners wanted to make it a winning end to their old ground.

It was no surprise then that Arsenal made the better start to the game, with Toure’s swivelling shot from a Henry free-kick on the left-hand side squirming through a crowded area but whistled wide of the upright. After Gilberto Silva and Senderos had their headers narrowly missing the target, there was a sense that the opening goal for Arsenal was only a matter of time.

Arsene Wenger thought his side got that lead when Henry planted the ball home from Pires’ pass, but the assistant referee had flagged for offside, a decision that appeared marginal but on replay looked to be a poor decision. Hleb was offside but not interfering with play; Henry was the onside one.

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After that decision, the away side got themselves into the game more and tested Lehmann for the first time when the German No 1 held on to Juan Ramon Riquelme’s 25-yard free-kick at the second attempt.

The Yellow Submarine were looking confident, but Arsenal could’ve taken the lead after 30 minutes played when Henry delivered a great cross on the left wing deflected into the path of Pires 12 yards out but Arzo raced in to flick the ball behind. This also caused a melee to ensue from the resulting corner as Ljungberg, Senderos and, finally, Gilberto all saw efforts smothered by the Villarreal defenders.

At the 41st minute mark, The Gunners got their lead when the home side won their second consecutive corner, It was returned to Henry on the left and he sent Hleb into space down the channel. The Belarus international looked up and chose his target and his cross was touched home by Toure at the near post.

Sending the Arsenal crowd wild with celebrations, but before they could have a mini-celebration at halftime, Villarreal almost got an equaliser after Riquelme’s long-ranged free-kick forced Lehmann to punch clear of his goal line. While the Gunners were clearing their lines, Villarreal claimed a penalty when Gilberto tangled with Jose Mari, but nothing was given.

The away side continued their push for a goal after the restart when Alessio Tacchinardi had a shot from long range and  Juan Pablo Sorin’s flick-on from a corner forced Toure to scoop the ball from practically under his side’s crossbar.

But after dealing with the early second-half pressure, Wenger’s men got going again and looked to get a second goal whilst keeping an eye on the threat of Villarreal’s counter-attacks as they searched for an away goal.

The Gunners nearly got their second goal after 57 minutes gone when Eboue fired a low cross into the area from the right flank. Henry got on the end of it and appeared to be heading towards goal, but the slow pace allowed Arzo to nod the ball off the line.

Back came Villarreal and Marcos Senna forced Lehmann to save at full stretch in the 67th minute. However, these kinds of efforts were as much as the Spanish side could create as Wenger’s defence began to tighten up as the game went on.

The first leg ended in a 1-0 win to The Arsenal as they ended their European journey at Highbury with a victory, a fitting end to a ground which has produced magical moments throughout the years.

Wenger and his players had a lead to hold onto going into the second leg of a European tie for the third consecutive time. Much like the three previous occasions, the losing side had to take the game to Arsenal if they were to overcome The Gunners.

And just like Real Madrid and Juventus, that’s exactly what they did as Manuel Pellegrini opted for the mobility of Franco ahead of Jose Mari and, with Riquelme pulling the strings alongside the impressive Marcos Senna, the home side caused Arsenal problems.

The Yellow Submarine created decent chances but Franco wasted a good chance to test Lehmann by firing wildly over the bar from the edge of the box, while Senna, on the edge of the six-yard box, laid the ball back to Juan Pablo Sorin but the Argentina captain shot straight at Lehmann.

Arsenal appeared to struggle for possession as Villarreal looked to dispossess them quickly and catch The Gunners on the counter-attack. Just a few minutes before halftime, Venta took advantage of a loose header from Clichy to loop a cross into the box. Franco stooped low at the near post but Lehmann thrust out his right leg to stop the goalbound header.

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The Spanish side continued to pressure the Arsenal backline not long into the second half, and the German shot-stopper was called into action once again as he saved Senna’s swerving, long-range effort. But he was almost beaten when Franco climbed above Toure to get his head on yet another dangerous cross from Venta. Fortunately for the visitors, the ball flew just wide.

Wenger’s men were riding their luck as the game went on as they continued to rely on their keeper bailing them out and Villarreal missing their chances. The home side did have the ball in the net with under 20 minutes left to go, but the offside flag ruled it out, relief for the Gunners in the away end, but it wasn’t over yet.

With just two minutes to go, Villarreal were awarded a penalty after Clichy was harshly adjudged to have fouled Jose Mari in the 18-yard box. However, Lehmann, who was Arsenal’s man of the match by some margin, saved Riquelme’s spot-kick. This proved to be the last chance for the Yellow Submarine as Wenger and his team reached the Champions League final for the very first time, queuing wild celebrations from the players and fans of the North London outfit.

The Champions League Final: Barcelona

It all came down to this, after all the bravery, quality and effort put into every match during the knockout stages, Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal side would face Barcelona in the Champions League final of 2005/06 in Paris.

This Barcelona team featured the likes of Lionel Messi, Ronaldinho, Deco, Carles Puyol, Samuel Eto’o, Xavi, Andres Iniesta etc. Much like Real Madrid, they would be facing an onslaught of quality for the whole 90 minutes.

Arsenal tried to take the lead within the first couple of minutes as Henry had two decent opportunities to give the North London side an early advantage, both times he was denied by Barca keeper Victor Valdes.

After that, Barca got going and carved up a couple of good opportunities themselves when Ludovic Giuly escaped from Ashley Cole and stung Lehmann’s hands. After Ronaldinho’s free-kick was just wide not long after, there was a sense that Barca had plenty of where that came from.

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In the 17th minute, the game took a big twist when Eto’o was sent through on goal and appeared to round the Arsenal Keeper, only for his trailing to be caught by Lehmann and a free-kick was awarded. But it didn’t end there as the German shot-stopper would be sent off for the foul, leading Wenger to take off Pires and put in substitute keeper Manuel Almunia in between the sticks.

It was a pivotal moment in the game as Arsenal had to work out how to contain the Barca attack now that they were down to ten men. But in the 37th minute, the Gunners found themselves shockingly 1-0 up after Henry’s free-kick on the right-hand side found Campbell ghosting in front of Oleguer to flick a header into the net at the far post.

The Gunner’s side of the stadium erupted into celebration while the Barca side was in complete silence.

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Barca looked to shake off their stunned expressions and get back into the game. Eto’o nearly got the equaliser when his shot from the corner of the area was saved by the fingertips of Almunia and onto the near post. A brilliant save from the substitute shot-stopper

After the restart, Barca continued to pressure The Gunners with Ronaldinho having a couple of decent long-ranged efforts saved. The tide was most definitely in favour of the Catalan outfit, but Arsenal remained firm and focused.

With Barca appearing to run out of ideas, Wenger began to believe that despite the overwhelming odds against his side, they could actually pull off an unlikely but nonetheless astonishing victory in Paris.

However, at the 76th-minute mark, it would all come crashing down, substitute Henrik Larsson cushioned a perfect ball for Eto’o to race through and fire home from an acute angle. Then just five minutes later, Barca took the lead when the Swede laid on the pass for Belletti to thump home a shot that cannoned into the net off the ankle of Almunia.

Two goals in just five minutes absolutely devastated The Gunners, who tried to pick themselves up and get going again. But having played two-thirds of the match with ten men they looked tired, exhausted and their tanks were mostly empty.

The Aftermath

The final whistle blew in Paris and after all of their hard work getting to this stage of the competition, it ended in heartbreak and devastation for Arsenal.

In the years following the final in Paris, The Gunners would never reach the final of the Champions League again and as mentioned at the beginning of this piece, they have not qualified for the competition in the last five years.

It’s a massive decline for a club that used to be such a huge threat in the competition despite not winning it as of yet. With the club failing to qualify for the prestigious European competition, we’ll unlikely see the North London side pose a threat to the tournament anytime soon.