Arsenal Legends in the Champions League – The year Thierry Henry led Arsenal to the Final

I love reliving old exciting Arsenal memories and with the recent draw for the knockouts of the Champions League, in our first appearance there for 7 years, I was thinking about the good old days when Arsenal were there nearly every single year.

Since I became an Arsenal fan over 50 years ago, the biggest legend I have ever had the pleasure to see live was Thierry Henry, with his brilliant sidekick Dennis Bergkamp, and our best ever year in the Champions League was in 2006 when we went all the way to the final in Paris.

Henry was brought to Arsenal by our legendary manager Arsene Wenger in 1999, and under his guidance, Henry was moved to the centre-forward position and became a prolific striker, eventually becoming Arsenal’s all-time leading scorer with an amazing total of 228 goals across all competitions. His awards included four Premier League Golden Boots, two FA Cups, and two Premier League titles, and of course he was vital to our success during our unbeaten Invincible season when he amassed an incredible 30 League goals in just 37 games.

That was our best ever season in the League and it was just two years later that we had our best ever Champions League run. Arsenal entered in the group stages after finishing second in the Premier League the previous year. Group B was not such a hard task, with just the Dutch giants Ajax as our biggest danger, and the numbers were made up by Thun and Sparta Prague. In our opening match against Thun, Arsenal managed a 2–1 victory, despite Van Persie being given a red card. Henry’s best moment of the Group was when he scored both goals in a 2–0 triumph over Sparta Prague, in which he surpassed Ian Wright’s all-time leading scorer record.

Arsenal’s defensive brilliance was on show in the group stages, only conceding only two goals and maintaining four clean sheets. This solid defense was instrumental to our success in the tournament.

The round of sixteen brought one of the most formidable opponents in Real Madrid, featuring galacticos like Ronaldo, Zidane, David Beckham, and Roberto Carlos, and Arsenal were long outsiders in the betting. Despite the odds being stacked against us, we managed a dour 0-0 draw in the home leg but we still had a mountain to climb on our visit to Spain. This was where Henry’s individual brilliance emerged at the Bernabeu. Winning the ball in midfield, he sprinted past defenders and scored a perfect solo goal, giving Arsenal an unlikely 1-0 lead and we held on to become the first ever English team to win at that venue. You can watch the excellent highlights here.

So the Gunners progressed to the quarterfinals, where they faced Juventus. In the first leg at home Henry scored yet again, doubling our lead in the second half after Cesc Fabregas had put us in front, and it finished 2-0, and after holding Juventus to a 0-0 in Italy we advanced to the semifinals for the first time in the club’s history.

Facing Spanish side Villareal in the semifinals, Arsenal secured a 1-0 victory in the first leg, with Kolo Toure scoring the decisive goal. The second leg ended goalless, and Jens Lehmann’s last-minute penalty save secured Arsenal’s place in the Champions League Final.

As they reached their first-ever final, Arsenal had an icredible run of ten consecutive clean sheets to try to extend, giving hope in their fans. However, in the final showdown against Barcelona in Paris, Arsenal faced a formidable challenge. Despite taking the lead with a Sol Campbell header, Jens Lehmann’s early red card made it hard to keep another clean sheet and Samuel Eto’o equalized for Barcelona, and Juliano Belletti scored the late winner, sealing a 2–1 victory.

The introduction of Henrik Larsson had made the big difference for Barcelona, assisting in the equalizer and setting up the decisive goal. Despite playing with ten men for the majority of the game, Arsenal, led by captain Thierry Henry, had more than enough opportunities to secure victory. However, fate had other plans for the Gunners and we came away empty handed in our only ever appearance in the final.

Henry did go on to win the tournament a few years later after moving to Barcelona, but Arsenal themselves have never been back to those giddy heights. Perhaps Mikel Arteta can take us back there, and wouldn’t it be great to get our revenge on Barcelona in this season’s Final?

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