I have spent the last couple of days organising a trip to Paris!
If you’d told me in September that I would be saying that, and talking about the Champions League final (and not a dirty weekend) then I would have laughed in your face. We have one of the worst Champions League records of any regular contender of this competition, and without Patrick Vieira at the heart of our midfield, how on earth were we going to do any better than the paltry efforts of the last 7 or 8 years? To be honest, I still don’t know how we did it.
I can’t put my finger on the reason behind our sudden transformation from European also-rans to Champions League finalists, and in truth I don’t think there is only one reason.
We limped through our first game, winning via a last minute goal from Dennis Bergkamp against FC Thun. But somehow we went on to win all but one (a 0-0 draw in Amsterdam) of our group games. The away win in Amsterdam was important to settle some nerves. But I think that the 2-0 victory in Prague was massive at this stage. Jose Antonio Reyes was taken off early with a rib injury, and Thierry Henry showed him (and Ian Wright!) how to score goals. This gave us some belief, where before we had none, in these eastern European away games.
Once through to the knockout stages, it was important that we got a big team in the draw, and Real Madrid fit the bill quite well! When we walked away from the Bernabeu with a superb 1-0 win, I think there must have been a lot of people who suddenly believed. A memorable couple of home games against Madrid and Juventus saw us through to the semis and some workmanlike performances against Villareal have brought us to the edge of glory and a European Cup final against Barcelona!
I have heard many things said about our route to the final – the defence has been superb, against all the odds, setting a record for consecutive clean sheets. And Thierry Henry hasn’t half knocked in some important goals along the way. Reyes and Hleb have battled hard when they needed to and immense respect to Jens Lehmann for being our best player all season. But I think that the credit has to go to Arsene Wenger.
Every single European game we played this season, we played a different way, particularly in the knockout rounds. We played attacking, exciting football against Madrid. We got stuck in, and combined that effort with pace and skill to beat Juventus and ground Villareal down over two legs. And all of this with a very young side indeed, who’d lost their captain. There is only one explanation – Arsene has indeed got a Magic Hat!
At the moment, it feels like it doesn’t matter if we don’t win in Paris – of course that feeling will change as the date approaches – but for now we can enjoy the prospect of seeing Thierry Henry against Ronaldinho in the Stade De France in May.