As we headed for the stadium on the Madrid metro after a day spent in Irish bars I was ecstatic at the prospect, nervous of the outcome and just so delighted to be there that I can’t even begin to explain my emotions. Our day had been spent meeting old friends and new amongst the travelling Gooners, including Julio who translated the 15 pages or so from the newspapers that were concerned about nothing other than the pending game. A Real fan asked me on our way to the ground who was the best player Ronaldo or Henry? My honest answer was Henry, sure he can be a shoulder shrugging misog but when he plays at his best surely only Ronaldinho can hold a candle to him.
The Santiago Bernabeu is a pretty impressive joint from the outside but it’s only when you get inside to view the pitch from the 5th. tier that it really hits you, it is awesome. It is far higher than the third tier at St James’s Park and thanks to all the escalators a far less stressful climb. The Spanish police who had toured the City in vans earlier in the day were out in overkill numbers with all their heavy-duty kit evident. The police however were well organised and despite the most thorough of body searches on entry there were no apparent delays. John enjoyed the body search because his was done by a fairly young and attractive policewoman, given the result he reckons he’s going to try and get searched by a female at all future matches.
The Gooners were in position long before the Spanish fans much later arrival at pitchside, The players could clearly hear us despite the fact that from our 4th. and 5th. tier eyries the park was laid out like a Subbuteo pitch far below us. Recognising players from the top of their heads is not always easy but when you’re playing against such household names as Zidane, Ronaldo, Beckham, Roberto Carlos, Guti and Robinho it’s not a major problem. It was pretty cold in Madrid but there were masses of powerful heaters set in the roof that pumped out sufficient hot air for a group of RedAction Gooners, Ben included, to strip to the waist and sun bathe for the entire match. A strange but welcome innovation that soon had the rest of us stripping off coats and jerseys.
The only surprise in our line up was the appearance of Hleb in place of Pires and he certainly justified his selection, not quite all his passes were as accurate or as early as desired but he held on to the ball and switched play neatly and effectively. Gilberto was by far the best Brazilian on the pitch; he worked well to cover gaps and clearly relished the match. Word is that when Eboue emptied his pockets returning through customs Robinho was one of the items that fell out. Eboue was immense and this despite being cynically fouled quite a few times. His African Nations trip has done wonders for his confidence and he looks like he could seriously challenge Ralph for the right back slot. Kolo Toure is now one of the finest centre backs in world football and I can’t recall him putting a foot wrong throughout the proceedings,
Real’s best players were Farina, the referee from Italy, and the lino immediately below the travelling Gooners, we were quite simply not given a thing from the officials. Offsides ignored for Real but onside runs by Henry flagged. A look from Roberto Carlos in the direction of the ref was enough to win a free kick, a gesture from Zidane the same so we just tried that bit harder and kept our cool.
My man of the match was Fabregas our 18 year-old midfielder who controlled the match form start to finish. He seemed to pull all the strings in a manner you might have expected from Zidane. He must have played his way into the Spanish World Cup squad in what was his first professional match back in his home country. To say that Cesc showed maturity beyond his years is a massive understatement, he was immense.
With Freddie working harder than I’ve ever seen him, which should seen as a major compliment to the gutsy little chap, this was first and foremost a team effort of supreme proportions. We were the better team throughout the proceedings, something that didn’t change a bit with the late arrival of local hero Raul. It took a world class goal by a world class player to win it for us. From my high perch he seemed to have about five players to beat when he got the ball. He took them all on in that casual turbo mode of his that is so deceptively fast. He went left, drifted further left powered forward and was through for a shot on goal form a narrow angle on the left with his left foot. Cassilas was well positioned and looked favourite, given what a great keeper he is and how little he gave Titi to aim at. It was quite possibly the most enjoyable goal I’ve ever seen. We went ape shit up in the gods and despite all our domination up to this point felt for the first time that we really could do it. Real Madrid 0-1 Arsenal. It was only the 47th. minute and from here on in time stood still. ‘One-nil to the Arsenal’ was quickly replaced by the chant of the night, which should be a classic for years to come; ‘One-nil in the Bernabeu’. We chanted it with massive pride.
At a rough estimate the bloke behind me shouted ‘keep them out Arsenal’ once every ten seconds for the rest of the match. The tension was immense but we in the stands were far twitchier than the players.
So the first win by any English team in the Bernabeu and very possibly the only team with a 100% record there. It wasn’t lucky, it wasn’t done ugly and it was absolutely deserved. When I watch the game again sometime I might be able to tell you just how good we were and just how poor they were. Recent form was certainly stood on it’s head mainly because for once we wanted to win an away game so badly and worked so hard and well to get it.
At the end of the game that I had been praying to end for nearly fifty minutes I can’t tell you how immensely proud or how deliriously happy I was. Late on in the match the Spanish fans had deserted their team to a chorus of ‘we can see you sneaking out’ followed by ‘Adios, adios, adios. The final whistle went with Lehmann still unbeaten and a major victory in the bag
As the ground emptied very quickly in the vast majority of the stadium it became all too apparent just how many Gooners there were scattered in pockets throughout the vast stadium. Those who’d watched the game in isolation amongst the Real fans were now only too happy to let rip as we continued to chant for the full thirty or so minutes we were kept back. ‘We’re not going home, we’re not going home, we’re not, we’re not, we’re not, we’re not going home’ You name an Arsenal song and it was sung at full volume. Texts were flying in and out of the stadium to Gooners back home. It was a wonderful night.
What a day, what a stadium, what a match, what a performance, what a victory and what an absolutely stunning goal. And far better yet I was there to see it, following the Arsenal just does not get any better than that! Ok. so we all know that it’s only half time in the scheme of things but who wouldn’t have settled for that first half?