“Could this really be the beginning of the end of Arsenal’s Premier League dreams?”
April 9, 2004.
Sami Hyypia has just pounced on some surprisingly lax defending from Arsenal’s backline to give Liverpool a 1-0 lead at Highbury Stadium.
Arsenal had gone into the clash with Gerard Houllier’s Liverpool knowing they were just eight games away from Premier League immortality. Having gone 30 matches unbeaten throughout the course of the 2003/04 season so far, eight more without defeat would see them crowned modern English football’s first-ever ‘Invincibles’, as well as Premier League champions for a third time under legendary manager Arsene Wenger.
Looking through the calendar, out of all the remaining eight games, the one against Liverpool had looked like the most obvious potential banana skin for the Gunners. The Reds came into the game in fine form, having won four of their last five and having not conceded a goal since mid-March. That form was thanks in large part to their superstar players Steven Gerrard and Michael Owen – both of whom were capable of winning a game at the drop of a hat.
It was explicitly clear that any minuscule drop in performance levels against Liverpool could bring Arsenal’s quest to finish the season unbeaten to an abrupt end.
Inside five minutes, a momentary lapse in concentration had threatened to do exactly that.
And had Thierry Henry not been on the pitch, it very well could have.
Luckily for Arsenal, he was, and 25 minutes later he brought his side back on level terms. The mercurial forward darted in behind the backline in a way only he could, before bringing a chipped through ball from Robert Pires under his control in a way only he could, and then side-footing across goal and right into the side-netting in a way only he could.
Having given his side a platform to go and win the game, another defensive lapse would gift Liverpool the lead again on the stroke of half-time.
Liverpool’s aforementioned superstars Gerrard and Owen would combined to capitalise on the seeming sleepiness of Arsenal’s backline, with the former feeding the ball through to the latter to make it 2-1.
The Gunners came out of the traps with renewed vigour at the start of the second half, however. Within a few minutes of the whistle, a move started by Henry would culminate in Pires levelling the scores.
60 seconds later, Henry would then make it 3-2 in quite remarkable fashion.
After the forward latched onto the ball with 40 yards and 11 Liverpool players between him and the goal, the 38,119 fans in attendance immediately stood up in anticipation – fully expecting their star man to miraculously find a way to make the net bulge.
And sure enough, he did.
Henry would quickly race past Dietmar Hamann before squaring up to Jamie Carragher and Igor Biscan on the edge of the box. A deft side-step to the left would send the pair crashing into one another helplessly and allow Henry to race into the left side of the box. In typical Henry fashion, he’d then open up his body and curl the ball beautifully into the bottom corner of the net.
Arsenal’s superstar would go on to cap off a remarkable performance with a third goal late in the game – one of the 30 he scored during the 2003/04 season to inspire his team to an unbeaten Premier League title-winning season.
Perhaps what makes this performance from Henry so special is how common such a showing was for him throughout his eight years at Arsenal.
This hat-trick wasn’t epiphanic like Andriy Arshavin’s four goals at Anfield were, or Maynor Figueroa scoring from the half-way line against Stoke City, or Sebastian Coates netting an overhead kick against QPR (remember that?); this hat-trick was Henry.
Growing up watching ITV’s “The Premiership” it seemed like every single Saturday night you’d see Henry do something you previously didn’t really believe was even possible. On this particular week in April, that ‘something’ was this hat-trick.
A few weeks later, that ‘something’ was four goals against Newcastle United.
A few weeks after that, that ‘something’ was lifting the Premier League title as the leader of a team who’d gone unbeaten for a full 38-game season.
Henry was consistently remarkable, and that’s what makes him the greatest player to ever grace the Premier League.