I must admit to not having been to too many of Arsenal’s away Champions League games, but when we drew Real Madrid in in 2006 a trip to the Bernabeu seemed like too much of an opportunity to miss. A huge game in Spain against a very strong Madrid side. Besides I did enjoy watching real at the time. And anyway I have never had any affection at all for Barcelona. The way in which the club seemed to be constantly circling round out best players (both then and now) made me a clear White when it came to El Classico.
It was a strange time for the Gunners. Like a lot of Arsenal fans at the time I was amazed by just how good we were domestically yet baffled that we couldn’t translate that form into European success. And that made the Highbury faithful quite realistic/cynical (delete as you see fit) when it came to the big European nights.
I remember arriving outside the stadium that day imagining that we might just sneak a draw but fully expecting to be sent home with our tail between our legs by a Real Madrid team that included Raul, Zidane and (the porky) Ronaldo. Fortunately we were spared Beckham who was getting over an injury.
Besides no English team had come to the Bernabeu before and won. Even though Arsenal had perhaps the best striker in the world at that time, Thierry Henry, at the peak of his powers, it was still massive ask.
To make matter worse if I remember rightly it was quite a make shift team too, with no recognisable left back – sound familiar? – Mathieu Flamini filled in. Jose Antonio Reyes, who was mid way through his last season at the club and would be Madrid bound in the summer – also started, and in the middle of the park was young Spanish midfielder called Cesc Fabregas.
Nevertheless when the game kicked the team seemed possessed. Henry should have scored with a header early on and Ljunberg and Reyes both went close.
Half time came and I still couldn’t believe what I was seeing. Then things went crazy. Two minutes after the re-start Cesc Fabregas intercepted a pass and threaded the ball through to Henry. The Frenchman then muscled his way past a couple of defenders, held off Sergio Ramos and planted an angled shot that gave Iker Casillas no chance. It happenned so quickly after the break that quite a few Arsenal fans missed the goal as they were still not back in their seats.
There then followed what was possibly the longest forty odd minutes of my life as Madrid pushed forward to try and grab an equaliser, but failed to get past the Arsenal defence.
When the final whistle went the travelling Gunners – there were about 3,500 of us, were ecstatic. Yet that excitement was tempered by the fact that we knew we had to go through all it again at Highbury. Fortunately a very edgy game finished 0-0 and Arsenal progressed on their way to their first and only Champions League Final.
After the final whistle I caught a glimpse of Beckham and also Júlio Baptista. Nicknamed the Beast he had already been linked with a move to London and would join the Gunners in part exchange for Reyes that summer. Sadly he remains as one of Arsene Wenger’s most disappointing signings, though his goal tally of 10 in 15 games wasn’t disastrous.
If anything the Madrid game was the one in which Arsenal fans started to believe that they could actually challenge Europe’s finest. The confidence levels for the next two games against Juventus and Villreal was sky high and really the team should have won the final in Paris.
It is a moot point whether the Madrid of 2006 would beat today’s team. Back then they had great strength in depth, though they didn’t have the brilliantly unpredictable Ronaldo (just the porky one who was past his best by then).
Three years later Liverpool became the second English team to win at the Bernabeu thanks to a headed goal by (kind of) Arsenal legend Yossi Benayoun. Incredibly the Reds beat Real 4-0 at home, which underlines just how far the Merseyside team has fallen in less than four years.
I wonder if United will become the third English team to beat Real in their own back yard? I wouldn’t bet against them.