"Tinkerman" has his day in the sun
The sight of English clubs meeting in the knock-out stages of the Champions League now seems uncomfortably common with Chelsea's imminent meeting with Liverpool bringing back memories of some torpid footballing occasions. Yet as recently as 2004 a meeting between a pair of Premier League clubs was a thrilling novelty.
When Chelsea and Arsenal were paired in the last eight of the competition that year, not since Liverpool and Nottingham Forest had met in the old European Cup in September 1978 had two English clubs met in Europe's premier club competition. A format, which from 1997 had allowed multiple clubs from each country to face each other, had not yet thrown up such an encounter.
Twenty-six years on from Clough's Forest, the country would again be absorbed by a two-legged encounter which, apart from perhaps the Gunners' meeting with Liverpool at the same stage in 2008, has yet to be surpassed as an all-English affair.
The two teams were in varying stages of development. Arsenal were at their very apex. The 2003-4 season was, domestically at least, their annus mirabilis, the term they would end unbeaten in 38 games. Chelsea were meanwhile in the infancy of the Roman Abramovich era. The progenitor of a pattern that would be repeated in years to come, manager Claudio Ranieri had been granted a one-shot deal by the Russian. He could either deliver glory or pay for a lack of success with his livelihood.
Despite being granted £120m to spend in the summer of 2003, Ranieri's team were streets behind Arsenal, who were sweeping all before them on the domestic stage. The Blues' hopes of FA Cup glory had been ended by a Jose Antonio Reyes double in the FA Cup Fifth Round, meaning the Italian's only hope of retaining his employment lay with success in the Champions League.
His sense of insecurity had been heightened by a series of tabloid scoops which placed Chelsea chief executive Peter Kenyon in meetings with Sven Goran Eriksson at Abramovich's London residence. Those had taken place before 2003 had even ended and a series of other coaches were being linked with a job that Ranieri had not even vacated. The name of a certain Portuguese coach was beginning to be mentioned in some despatches... in his own words, Ranieri was a "dead man walking".
The first leg of the quarter-final had finished with Wenger's team stealing a 1-1 draw from Stamford Bridge. Despite Eidur Gudjohnsen seizing on a Jens Lehman error in the 52nd minute, Chelsea's inferiority complex to their London rivals, which had seen them lose 2-1 in both league encounters, took hold when Robert Pires headed an equaliser soon after. As the Soccernet report of the time said: "Arsenal not losing to Chelsea is right up there with death and taxes."
April 6, 2004 saw the tie arrive at Highbury with most expecting the Gunners to progress to the last four. Though an air of impregnability had deserted the Gunners over the preceding weekend. A league and cup double-header with Manchester United had seen them hold off Sir Alex Ferguson's team in a drawn league encounter, yet have their hopes of a treble shattered in the FA Cup semi-final at Villa Park. A single Paul Scholes strike and a highly physical approach from United won out, much to Arsene Wenger's visible anger.
Arsenal had rested Thierry Henry and Ashley Cole against United which, in pre-match, Ranieri felt was to the north Londoners' advantage. Nevertheless, in typically avuncular style, the Italian stayed hugely positive in the face of unfavourable odds: "It's very hard to find something that's not right about the Arsenal team. We will try though." As he pointed out: "We're the underdogs but have won every away game in Europe so far."
All had been running to plan for the home side when Reyes had been the man to confirm first-half dominance on the stroke of the break. Chelsea's defence finally gave way to the Spaniard, who bundled in a headed pass from Thierry Henry, the Frenchman operating at the height of his devastating best.
Ranieri had long been accused of tactical naivety, with the nickname of "The Tinkerman", even though he coined it himself, often used against him in derogatory fashion. Yet in the Highbury dressing room he pulled off the masterstroke of his entire Chelsea reign. Forced to go for broke, he pushed on Jesper Gronkjaer for Scott Parker, surrendering midfield grit for the flair of the Danish winger. Six minutes in, Frank Lampard pounced on a Jens Lehmann mistake as the German keeper parried a powerful goalward drive from, of all people, Claude Makelele, to poke home. The tie was level and with their ability to grab an away goal, Chelsea had the whip hand.
The match went into a breathless overdrive. Henry and Lampard traded near misses. Italian keeper Marco Ambrosio, only playing because Carlo Cudicini was injured, pulled off the saves of his life to deny Reyes and Kolo Toure, before the managers made their final throws of the die. Henry, running on empty after a wonderful season and bearing the wear and tear of a deluge of games, departed the scene for Dennis Bergkamp. Ranieri smelled blood, and threw on Joe Cole and Hernan Crespo eight minutes from time.
Cole, who had suffered an unsettled start to his Chelsea career after a £6.6m move from West Ham the previous summer, almost made an instant impact by setting up Gudjohnsen for a shot that Ashley Cole could only hack away. The Icelandic striker soon turned creator. Spotting a lung-bursting overlap by Wayne Bridge, Gudjohnsen played in the full-back, who, perhaps remembering his youth days as an attacking player, powered the ball past the despairing Lehmann. Arsenal were shattered, their cloak of invincibility cut down to the size of mere domestic dominance. With three minutes to play, two goals were beyond them and the wilting Wenger, like three days before, looked haunted beside the touchline.
Ranieri, meanwhile, could not hide his emotion, those genial features breaking into an unbreakable smile and tears he did not try to hide. Vindication was his and he had bought himself time and kept the dream of European glory alive. His face beaming as bright as the Highbury floodlights, he gushed to the cameras: " I said to them 'Don't worry, we can score', and the second half was fantastic. A great performance."
He remained cock-a-hoop in the following press conference, showing the admirable defiance and dignity that had led many to warm to him: "It's difficult to kill me. I may be 'dead' but I will continue to work. I don't stand still. Can we win the Champions League? Why not? Anything is possible now. Describing my joy at the final whistle is difficult, but I was mad, it was 30 seconds of delirium!"
And of his paymaster: "Roman Abramovich was mad afterwards as well, everyone was going crazy in the dressing room as we have made history."
Arsenal fans may have grumbled but few could hold this fundamentally decent man's moment of glory against him and though Wenger glowered with a double disappointment, he would have his day as his team ended their league campaign unbeaten; an amazing achievement.
For Ranieri and Chelsea, these celebrations would prove to be the high point of the season. News that Monaco had knocked out Real Madrid on the same night may have had them believing that a final date in Gelsenkirchen beckoned. This time, however, Ranieri killed himself, making a suicidal tactical change in the second leg against the French side that mirrored the gung-ho approach of Highbury but yielded markedly different results.
The Ligue 1 club from the tiny principality would make their way to the Ruhr to would meet an FC Porto team coached by that bloke with the designer stubble and overcoat.
Jose Mourinho, for it was he, would soon be granted the nucleus of a fine side by his Italian predecessor, though he has rarely been heard to praise Ranieri, who departed English football with his head held high, even being granted a standing ovation by an unusually sympathetic Old Trafford crowd as Chelsea beat Manchester United to second place in the Premierhip.
May 31 would be the day that Ranieri was finally put out of his misery and, to paraphrase his autobiography, he remained a proud man walking.