When Nwankwo Kanu’s audacious best put Chelsea to the sword

When Nwankwo Kanu’s audacious best put Chelsea to the sword

This feature is part of Virtuoso

Like many footballing institutions, Arsenal are not without their fair share of adulated alumni; an array of impenetrable defenders, a collection of tantalisingly talented midfield maestros and, of course, perhaps the most exciting cohort of all, more than a handful of since-departed patrons whose lasting legacies were forged through their extraordinary exploits in front of goal.

For as long as memory serves, beginning with the undisputed King of Highbury, Thierry Henry, and spooling back beyond the likes of Robin van Persie and, before him, Ian Wright, all the way to the original greats in Ted Drake and Cliff Bastin, Arsenal have seemingly always found themselves blessed with a quite magnificent procession of venerated frontmen.

Another beloved goalscorer whose name belongs on that list is that of Nigerian forward Nwankwo Kanu, who plied his trade in north London for six seasons, between 1999 and 2004, having found his way to the English capital by way of an inspiring period in Amsterdam followed by an inauspicious spell in the black and blue half of Milan.

Though his grand total of 44 goals for the Gunners leaves him some way short of the aforementioned players on numbers alone, Kanu’s legend remains unquestioned. Ask any Arsenal fan and they’ll happily chew your ear off, recounting their favouring moments. There was simply so much to the two-time African Footballer of the Year; so much to enjoy, so much that data alone could never describe. It was the bright shining personality of the man, the always endeavouring attitude of the professional, and the deceptively exquisite style of the player that enamoured him most to the Arsenal faithful.

That isn’t to say, though, that on his day, Kanu wasn’t a truly exceptional striker. Just ask Chelsea; Kanu could play, as the west Londoners learned a week shy of Halloween in 1999 when the Nigerian scared the life out of the Blues’ back line and performed a trick or two on the way to treating the Gunners to all three points.

Gianluca Vialli’s Chelsea had begun the 1999/2000 season in fine fettle. Nine fixtures in and they were yet to concede a goal at home. Furthermore, on their last outing at the Bridge, Chelsea thumped reigning champions Manchester United 5-0, issuing a clear signal of intent to the rest of the league. On 23 October 1999, back at the Bridge just four short days after Chelsea had put another five past Galatasaray in Istanbul, Arsenal could seemingly do little by way of protest as the hosts set about them amidst home comforts.

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With 38 minutes elapsed, Dan Petrescu embarked upon a run down the right wing and utilised the space afforded to him by a too cautious Tony Adams. His cross looped deep into the area and found the rising head of Tore André Flo, stealing in between Lee Dixon and Martin Keown, before nestling in David Seaman’s far corner of the net. Advantage Blues.

Shortly after the half-time restart, Petrescu turned from provider to scorer. On the left flank, Dennis Wise nudged the ball to Graeme Le Saux who paced forwards and sent an early whipped ball towards the penalty spot. His inswinger evaded the efforts of Keown and Emmanuel Petit and there, awaiting the ball, gratefully unmarked, was Le Saux’s fellow full-back Petrescu, ready to snaffle up the chance to put his side two to the good. Arsenal were in deep trouble of becoming yet another visiting victim.

To the relief of those in red and white, their fight-back began sooner rather than later. A long, flowing move worked from side to side eventually landed at the feet of Dixon on the right wing. His first-time cross was blocked easily by Celestine Babayaro, though. Fortunately, the ball cannoned off the defender’s head straight to Marc Overmars whose instant and somewhat wayward shot found Kanu.

The Nigerian’s first touch tethered the ball, as it slowed to a stop in the area, perfectly poised between the trio of Kanu, Frank Leboeuf and Marcel Desailly. The two Chelsea defenders each stretched out a desperate leg, attempting to dispossess the Arsenal forward at the last, but Kanu’s long limb afforded him the quickest response and his was to prod it swiftly beyond Ed de Goey, bringing his team back to within a goal’s reach. Celebrations muted, 15 minutes remained for Arsenal to find an equaliser.

With seven or so minutes left, Dixon found Overmars on the right wing, who fronted up a defensive double act in Babayaro and Leboeuf. The latter forced him wide and retreated while the former closed in. With his angle for a right-footed cross cut off, Overmars nudged the ball inside and flashed it towards the area with his left. Fizzed past two Blue shirts, the ball found Kanu whose intentionally heavy first touch immediately took it into space where he could fire off a shot away from the close attention of Desailly. From eight yards out, Kanu banged the ball hard and low, aimed at de Goey’s near post. The ‘keeper dived, the net rippled regardless. Two-two.

Offended by Arsenal’s audacity, Chelsea pressed forward for a late winner in stoppage-time. As the two nervously swapped possession in the midfield, Wise looked to switch the play out wide but saw his attempted pass intercepted by the chest of Overmars. Davor Šuker picked up the ball and drove inside but could only give the ball away again as his pass to Kanu was misplaced. Chelsea right-back Albert Ferrer gave chase and looked to pump the ball along the line but found only Kanu’s block. Suddenly the Nigerian had the ball in space.

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In an instant, de Goey was out of his goal, panicked, covering the role of his right-back out of pure necessity. He paused on the very edge of his area for just a moment then pounced, lunging at the feet of the forward. Kanu feigned a cross and instead swept the ball past the stranded goalkeeper. A hint of fortune saw the ball ricochet off of the Dutch custodian and onto Kanu’s shin, keeping it in play as he progressed down the byline.

Overmars and Šuker demanded the ball on the area’s edge, arms aloft and voices booming, but, faced with a wave of Blue shirts between him and his entourage, Kanu elected not to continue any further nor attempt to find a teammate. Instead he’d simply shoot, right-footed, from the absurd angle afforded to his position barely two yards in from the goal-line. Swept elegantly with the instep of his right foot, the ball curled inwards, over a jumping Desailly, over a jumping Leboeuf, and into the far corner of the gaping net.

Martin Tyler, commenting live, couldn’t help but scream in surprise. “Oh! Can you believe it? He’s flattened Chelsea. He’s hit a hat-trick at Stamford Bridge! This is simply extraordinary. Absolutely amazing.” He put into words what all in attendance were thinking. Kanu’s speed of thought, his instinctive movement and positioning, his efficiency in firing, had gunned Chelsea down on their own doorstep and, indeed, his marksmanship had been quite amazing to behold.

Immediately after the final whistle, Kanu was approached by his compatriot Babayaro, eager to have the shirt from off his back as a memento of the occasion. Few in the home stands would have wished to see a defeat followed so swiftly by such keen acquisition of an opponent’s shirt, but even fewer could fail to see why. Kanu had run the show.

“I expected him to cross,” Arsène Wenger admitted after the game, recalling the winning goal with a grin. “If he hadn’t scored it could have upset you because he really should have passed. However, great players can prove you wrong. It is one of the best goals I’ve seen. Kanu is a great character, not only a talent but a fighter who works hard for the team. He is a winner, and when you are a winner you do what is efficient.”

His dazzling performance at the Bridge would eventually prove to be the only hat-trick Kanu would score during his time with Arsenal, though the fans needed no more to adore him. Found today in some sparsely-populated place between bonafide legend and cult hero, Kanu will always be treasured by Arsenal fans, for his one-man show in west London and for every other act of intoxicating joy he brought them in the halcyon years before and after.

By Will Sharp @shillwarp

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