It was a night for the ages. A night when every single one of the blue shirts on the field and fans in the stands gave their all and pulled off the biggest victory in Chelsea’s history. Yes, there was a league championship in 1955, a couple of Cup-Winners Cups and a few F.A. Cups, including the unforgettable night in 1970 at Old Trafford, but nothing like this.
This was magic performed on the world stage and at the end Arsenal had disappeared.
Wayne Bridge, the man we can rely on to keep things tight and cool, produced the moment of magic three minutes from the end. He raced at the tiring Arsenal defence, passed to Eidur Gudjohnsen on the edge of the box, who played a one-time return ball through the legs of Toure to Bridge who had continued his run into the box. An unstoppable left-foot shot past Lehmann into the far corner and we were through to the Champions League semi-final to play Monaco, upset winners over Real Madrid on away goals.
This was not a fluke smash and grab raid, but a thoroughly deserved win for a dominating second-half performance that had Arsenal scrambling to stay with the speed and movement we showed up front. If the first half was tough and tense with neither team giving the other room or time to flow, the second half became wide open with Chelsea pouring into space and battering the Arsenal back line. Arsenal still looked dangerous on counter-attacks, but Terry and Gallas were huge in the middle and when a couple of shots got through Ambrosio did very well to turn them away.
Everyone was a hero, but Frank Lampard was the man of the night, outfighting, outthinking and outshining Patrick Vieira in the middle of the park. Claude Makelélé was immense, Terry was gigantic, hell everyone was heroic.
The tone was set before the game when Claudio Ranieri surprised almost everyone by naming the same team that had won at White Hart Lane last Saturday. Arsene Wenger surprised no one by naming his strongest possible team, with Reyes back from the undertaker’s where we had been led to believe he had been taken after Old Trafford. Freddy Ljungberg played with his broken hand and Ashley Cole returned at left back.
The first half was just edged by Arsenal and if Henry had been able to shoot accurately, he might have had a couple. Instead we missed the best chance of the night after a flowing move saw Duff cut inside and have a clear shot on Lehmann from close in. He pulled his right-foot drive wide of the near post.
Arsenal looked dangerous down our right side with Melchiot and Parker fighting hard to staunch the flow, but it was from the right side that Arsenal went ahead on the stroke of half time. Lauren broke clear on the right on a break and his cross went to Henry beyond the far post. He nodded back into the middle and Reyes was first to the loose ball to poke it through Ambrosio’s legs, the first Arsenal shot on goal.
Ranieri wasted no time and brought on Gronkjaer for Parker at half time. This was one of those nights when the Dane was alive and Ashley Cole disappeared as an attacking force, forced to concentrate on trying to contain the speedy Gronkjaer who managed to elude the full back a couple of times for dangerous crosses.
The equaliser was not long in coming. After 50 minutes, Makelélé fired in a bullet from 35 yards that Lehmann pathetically knocked down with a forearm right in front of his goal.
Fabulous Frank was first there to turn it in and everyone in blue believed.
Shortly after we conceded our first corner of the game and it resulted in a wild scramble in our area before Henry fired high and wide.
Then Lampard latched on to a loose ball and fired instantly from 25 yards, the ball curling around Lehmann’s dive but not enough to sneak in the post.
This was exhilarating stuff and we looked the stronger and more likely. But in a brief flash of the F.A. Cup tie earlier, Reyes teed the ball up on his left foot 20 yards out and fired towards the far corner. Ambrosio was equal to it and magnificently beat it away. Two minutes later Lauren bulleted a shot from 35 yards and Ambrosio tipped it over the bar.
But these shots distorted the pattern of the game with Chelsea exploiting the ragged Arsenal midfield and launching forward at every chance. If there is vindication for Ranieri’s rotation policy this was it. Our legs were full of running, but Arsenal’s had suddenly become heavy. The toll of a long season was telling on them, not us.
Another great run by Gronkjaer past Cole and the cross-reached Gudjohnsen, who couldn’t maneuver the ball for a shot. He laid it off to Lampard who was blocked at the last instant by Campbell. From the corner, Gudjohnsen had a good chance, but headed wide.
We knew one goal now would mean Arsenal would have to score two and we were going for it.
With 10 minutes left, Wenger took off Henry for Bergkamp, the finest tribute Arsenal could pay to Gallas and Terry. We responded with Joe Cole for Duff and Hernan Crespo for JFH. Any doubts about the wisdom of bringing on Cole were dispelled almost immediately, when he brilliant wriggled free of two defenders and pulled the ball back to Gudjohnsen near the penalty spot. With a gaping goal and European glory in his sights, he fired low and hard — straight at Ashley Cole on the line. The Arsenal fullback scooped the ball up and away as he fell back into the net.
The agony lasted just two minutes before Bridge’s wonder goal, a carbon copy of his score against Portsmouth at the Bridge.
TV showed Ranieri punch both hands in the air in as great a display of emotion as we have witnessed from him. He had come to the team everyone said was the best in Europe and destroyed them, something Peter Kenyon could not do to him and his spirit.
He is edging ever closer to that point where no one can ever again accuse him of not winning anything.
All that was left was for the Chelsea players to go over to the wildly celebrating Chelsea fans in the corner.
“There’s only one team in Europe,” they sang.
And they are right.
ARSENAL 1 (Reyes, 45)
CHELSEA 2 (Lampard, 50; Bridge, 87)
Chelsea win 3-2 on aggregate