Arsenal’s UEFA Cup adventure of 1999/2000

Arsenal’s UEFA Cup adventure of 1999/2000

It would be an understatement to say this season has been turbulent for Arsenal. Their Premier League title hopes have been extinguished once again by January, they suffered yet another last 16 exit in the Champions League to Bayern Munich, and it is likely the Gunners will sell their best player, Alexis Sánchez, who has over a year left on his contract, in the summer.

Anger amongst the fans has increased at the club’s stagnation – or regression some say – which has resulted in protests outside the Emirates, along with flyovers that demand manager Arsène Wenger leave this summer. These setbacks are reflected in the league table, with the Gunners facing the distinct prospect of missing out on Champions League qualification.

Should Arsenal play in the Europa League next season it would be a blow; they will subsequently miss out on the lucrative Champions League revenue and ability to sign world-class players in the summer. For Wenger, it will end a proud record of reaching Europe’s premier club competition for the last 19 years. However, the last time Arsenal participated in what was then known as the UEFA Cup, it began an eventful six-month journey across continental Europe.

Arsenal entered the third round of the UEFA Cup in November 1999 via the Champions League after finishing third in their group behind Barcelona and Fiorentina. Their opponents would be French side Nantes, but instead of playing the first leg at home at Wembley, like in the Champions League group stage, they hosted the Ligue 1 side at Highbury.

The Gunners had a poor record at Wembley during the Champions League between 1998 and 2000. During the 1999/2000 campaign they lost two out of their three home games – 4-2 to Barcelona and 1-0 to Fiorentina. Even their 3-1 home victory to Swedish outfit AIK came about after two injury-time goals by Thierry Henry and Davor Šuker.

Playing at Highbury in the first leg posed few problems for Arsenal, effectively taking control of the tie by winning 3-0, with goals from Marc Overmars, Nigel Winterburn and Dennis Bergkamp. The second leg, two weeks later in early December, proved to be a highly entertaining affair. Hope was kindled for Nantes when they scored first, but three goals in the first half, through Gilles Grimandi, Henry and Overmars, killed off the tie. Though Nantes battled from 3-1 down to 3-3, it would be Arsenal who progressed to the next round.

The Gunners’ fourth round opponents, Deportivo La Coruña, represented tough opposition – at least on paper. Ably managed by Javier Irureta since 1998, they had finished sixth in La Liga the previous season. In addition, Depor possessed a wealth of attacking talent, including Roy Makaay, Djalminha, Pauleta and Flavio Conceiçao. The first leg was to be played on 2 March 2000, nearly three months since Arsenal last played in the UEFA Cup. During that period things had moved rapidly on the domestic front, and not for the better.

Arsenal were third in the Premier League by March yet their title hopes had been badly dented during the last month. The Gunners suffered back to back league defeats – 2-1 away to Bradford City and 1-0 at home to Liverpool. A 3-1 win against Southampton at Highbury managed to salvage some pride in a tough month.

In the FA Cup, Arsenal reached the fourth round in January, where they lost to Leicester on penalties. In the League Cup, they only managed to progress to the fourth round in November, where again they would lose on penalties to Middlesbrough. So when they faced Deportivo in March, the UEFA Cup had become their best chance of silverware.

Their realisation of the importance of the competition showed in the first leg, with Arsenal taking the game to Deportivo, leading 2-0 at half-time through Lee Dixon and Henry. But when Djalminha scored a precious away goal from the penalty spot in the 55th minute, an air of anxiety gripped Highbury. There was also an air of injustice, as Ljungberg was adjudged to have felled Flavio Conceiçao, but when looking at the replay, it was clear the Portuguese winger was quick to go down. But just as Djalminha gave his side hope, he soon took it away.

Two minutes after making it 2-1, the Brazilian was booked for diving. When Giles Grimandi brought down Djalminha soon after, the midfielder’s infamous temper got the better of him and barged his tackler to the ground. The Bulgarian referee Atanas Ouzounov booked Grimandi but more importantly gave Djalminha his second yellow card; Deportivo were needlessly down to 10 men.

Arsenal immediately took advantage when Henry made it 3-1 before Nwankwo Kanu and Bergkamp made it 5-1. Arsenal’s clinical performance in the first leg decided the tie, though Depor regained pride by winning the second leg in Spain 2-1.

For Deportivo, far bigger things would await them at the end of the season. Under Irureta they won the league for the first time in their history, five points ahead of nearest rivals Barcelona. Their 5-1 defeat to the Gunners would be their heaviest loss of the season.

Arsenal were drawn against Werder Bremen in the quarter-finals, whose focus, like Arsenal, was solely on cup competitions. By the middle of March, when Die Grün-Weißen faced the Gunners in the first leg at Highbury, they had reached the DFB-Pokal final. In addition, they had gone through some eventful moments on their way to the quarter-finals.

In the first round they easily dispatched of Norway’s FK Bodø/Glimt before sneaking past another Norwegian club in Viking FK on away goals in the second round. Werder would then perform heroics in the third round against Lyon – recovering from losing the first leg 3-0 in France to miraculously win 4-0 in the second and progress to the fourth round, where they eliminated Parma. Vanquishing the Italians was quite a feat, as Parma’s line up against Werder in those two legs included Gianluigi Buffon, Hernán Crespo, Lillian Thuram, Fabio Cannavaro and Ariel Ortega.

Arsenal were in total control in the first leg at Highbury, winning 2-0. Their first goal epitomised the stylish precision installed under Wenger. Patrick Vieira receives the ball in his own half, takes a few touches, splits the Bremen centre-backs with a raking pass that finds Henry with no defenders near him. Typically, he slots the ball past keeper Frank Rost. Freddie Ljungberg then doubles their lead, and to Wenger’s delight, Arsenal did not concede an away goal.

The second leg in Bremen was a classic encounter as Arsenal eased into the semi-finals with a 4-2 win (6-2 on aggregate), with a Ray Parlour hat-trick a rare yet luxurious highlight. But their emphatic win came at a cost: Henry had been sent off in the second leg after receiving two yellow cards – his second yellow causing Wenger to air his fury at Danish referee Kim Nielsen, who subsequently sent him to the stands.

The outcome of the semi-final draw meant there was a distinct possibility of an all-English final, not seen since the inaugural 1971/72 UEFA Cup when Tottenham beat Wolves over two legs. High flying Leeds would play Galatasaray while Arsenal were drawn against French side Lens.

The Gunners’ opponents may currently be in Ligue 2, but in April 2000 the Sang et Or went through one of their most successful periods. During the 1997-98 season, they became league champions – the only top-flight win in their history. Lens also punched above their weight in domestic cup competitions, winning the Coupe de la Ligue in 1999 and finishing as runners-up in the Coupe de France the previous year.

The French club also had recent history with Arsenal. They had faced each other the previous season in the Champions League, when Lens famously beat the Gunners 1-0 at Wembley.

Despite this, when the two sides played the first leg of their semi at Highbury on 6 April, it would be Arsenal who made a blistering start less than two minutes into the game. When Emmanuel Petit collected the ball deep in his own half there was not a Lens player within a few metres. Before the French team could close him down, the midfielder clipped the ball over the top and into the opposition half.

If you watch the footage, you’ll see there are three Lens defenders and Bergkamp, who was tasked with leading the line in the absence of Henry. As the ball is played, all three Lens players are ahead of Bergkamp and should deal with the probing pass. However, two of them defenders somehow let Bergkamp waltz past them, as the ball sails over their heads, expertly controlled by the Dutchman.

Seeing Bergkamp striding towards goal, Lens goalkeeper and captain, Guillaume Warmuz, decides to rush out of his penalty area in desperation. In response, Bergkamp skips around the hapless Warmuz before stroking the ball into the empty net. The crowd roars with delight at the stylishness of Bergkamp within those few seconds. Although both sides had a few half chances, it would be Arsenal who held a slender advantage heading into the second leg two weeks later.

Henry would return from suspension and promptly killed Lens’ hopes of a comeback by opening the scoring with his seventh goal of the competition, although Lens scored in the 73rd minute through Pascal Nouma to give a degree of respectability to the result. Kanu made it 2-1 (3-1 on aggregate) and sealed Arsenal’s place in the UEFA Cup final against Galatasaray.

The Turkish giants beat Leeds 4-2 on aggregate but the semi-final was overshadowed by the murders of two Leeds fans in Istanbul. There would also be clashes between Galatasaray and British fans in Copenhagen before the final.

Arsenal saw the UEFA Cup as a chance of salvaging a disappointing season with nothing left to play for. The Gunners may have finished second in the Premier League, thereby qualifying automatically for the Champions League, but were 18 points behind champions Manchester United.

On the other hand, Galatasaray were savouring a fantastic season under manager Fatih Terim, becoming league champions and winning the Turkish Cup. If Gala could win the UEFA Cup it would complete a unique and historic treble. Known in Turkey as İmparator (Emperor), Terim had a team full of stars, worthy of his nickname. It was a strong core of homegrown talent -Hakan Şükür, Hasan Şaş, Ümit Davala and Hakan Ünsal, led by skipper Bülent Korkmaz – and several would be part of Turkey’s 2002 World Cup squad that finished third.

As well as homegrown players, Galatasaray could call upon veteran foreign stars like their two Brazilians, Cláudio Taffarel and centre back Capone. They also had the two legendary Romanians in Gheorghe Popescu and star playmaker Gheorghe Hagi. With a squad of such quality at Terim’s disposal, it’s no wonder Galatasaray won four league titles in a row.

The UEFA Cup final was played on 17 May at Copenhagen’s Parken Stadium, and Galatasaray had the first chance within three minutes. When the ball was crossed into the 18-yard box, it seemed as though Arsenal’s captain Tony Adams would deal with it. However, the centre-back’s timid header went straight to Erdem Arif, whose shot was deflected wide, serving to raise the decibel levels among the already loud Galatasaray’s fans.

The Gunners would fashion chances of their own, Henry guilty of blazing his shot over the bar after Vieira did well to head back Overmars’ corner into the danger area. Taffarel was also quick to deny Overmars’ fierce low drive at his near post, but it would be Galatasaray who had the best chance of the first half, when an unmarked Arif shot wide from 10 yards.

The ever-canny Hagi was using his team’s growing possession of the ball to display his array of talents in the first half, and nearly punished Arsenal just a few minutes into the second. Receiving the ball in Arsenal’s half, the wily Romanian sees Adams drive forward at him, while Hakan Şükür makes a run towards the space Adams had vacated.

Hagi plays Şükür in and the striker prepares to shoot. However, Adams’ centre-back partner Martin Keown had tracked Şükür’s run, staying close to the striker. Just as Şükür shoots, Keown lunges desperately and the ball is deflected past David Seaman and onto the post.

Keown would then go from saving Arsenal to spurning a glorious chance. Henry collected the ball on the left side before driving into the penalty area, effortlessly ghosting past two Galatasaray players, and put in a fierce low cross into the six-yard box. Keown stretched but could only spoon his effort over the bar – much to the despair of Arsenal’s fans.

Jolted by Keown’s missed chance, Galatasaray pushed forward and Seaman denied Arif once again before smothering a loose ball in front of the outstretched Şükür. The Turkish club had a chance to win it at the end of normal time with a free-kick less than 25 yards out but Şükür pulled it wide.

With both sides failing to score after 90 minutes the final went into golden goal extra-time. Three minutes into the first period of extra-time, disaster struck for Gala. Adams and Hagi clashed, with both striking each other, but the referee sent of Hagi, while Adams escaped with a yellow card.

Sensing an opportunity, Arsenal pushed to win the game, while Terim replaced Arif for a young Hasan Şaş. The only chance in the first period of extra-time Arsenal managed to create was from Overmars shooting wide from five yards after good work by Henry. In the second half, however, the Gunners would spurn a golden chance to win the game.

Parlour whipped in a brilliant outswinging cross from the right. Henry, who had been well marshalled by the Galatasaray’s defenders, managed to slip past his marker Capone and head the ball towards the near post, but Taffarel somehow parried his effort away. With these chances spurned, Galatasaray held on and the final went to penalties. 

With all penalties dispatched thus far, as Vieira stepped up to take Arsenal’s third and level matters, his effort cannoned off the crossbar, allowing Gheorghe Popescu the chance to win the Turks their maiden European title. The Romanian made no mistake, confidently smashing the ball past a despairing Seaman. The stadium erupted as Galatasaray’s players rushed towards Popescu.

History was made by Gala, ushering in a new era for Turkish football, and they would achieve further legend by famously beating Real Madrid in the UEFA Super Cup to cement an unprecedented quadruple.

Despite their heartbreak in Copenhagen, what Arsenal experienced in the UEFA Cup would have positive ramifications. What began from the wreckage of their Champions League campaign blossomed into an adventure that brought them within a penalty shootout of UEFA Cup glory. Arsenal would learn from their experiences in the UEFA Cup and over the next few years performed well in Europe – culminating in reaching the Champions League final in 2006, where they would fall to Barcelona. Domestically they would also break numerous records on the way to winning the 2003/04 title unbeaten.

Alas, should the Gunners participate in what is now the Europa League next season, fans will inevitably look back at a memorable run that ultimately ended in disappointment. The chance will be there to vanquish those memories and lift a European trophy for the first time since 1994.

By Yousef Teclab @yousef738

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