West London, on a washed out autumn afternoon. Buried amongst the huddle of celebrating Arsenal players was the gangly frame of their No. 25. The young African forward had just heralded himself from Gunners cult hero to legend with a match-winning performance against bitter London rivals Chelsea on their own patch. Emmanuel Adebayor this was not – Nwankwo Kanu it most definitely was.
Adebayor was but a 15-year-old, quite possibly watching on as his idol (and admittedly, sole reason for wanting to own the number 25 jersey during his time as the Arsenal tenor) produced heroics that even today, still draws superlatives. After an excellent third place finish of the 1998/99 season, Chelsea were expected to go even better and win the title. Blackburn Rovers striker Chris Sutton was signed to partner one of the league’s best players in Gianfranco Zola and spearhead the Blues attack. Kanu was added to the new dynasty Arsene Wenger was building at Arsenal. Having been crowned League and FA cup champions in 1998 and failing to win any silverware in the following season, the Nigerian was brought in from Serie A giants Inter Milan at £4m to bolster a Gunners attack that had been shorn of Ian Wright and Nicolas Anelka, but still included Croatian legend Davor Suker, Dutchmen Dennis Bergkamp and Marc Overmars, and the newest striking recruit, Thierry Henry. The Nigerian forward was worlds apart from any of his peers – towering at 6’5″, his style was lethargic and unpredictable, yet he moved with grace and elegance, capable of such individual brilliance that would soon become a key component of the successful noughties Arsenal teams.
The build up to the match saw the hosts and their visitors experience contrasting midweek fortunes in Europe. Arsenal had been well beaten 4-2 by Barcelona at Wembley in the Champions League and Chelsea had enjoyed a win over hostile Turkish outfit Galatasaray in the same competition. The Blues had also enjoyed a 5-0 mauling of reigning champions Manchester United the previous weekend.
Both sides were without their attacking talismen – Chelsea coach Gianluca Vialli opted to start Tore Andre Flo ahead of the diminutive Zola following his impressive European two-goal haul, whilst Arsenal were forced to travel without the injured Bergkamp. The line-ups still read an impressive mixture of experience and class – Chelsea could count World Cup winners in Marcel Desailly, Frank Leboeuf and Didier Deschamps and a host of internationals in Dan Petrescu, Graeme Le Saux, Celestine Babyaro, captain Dennis Wise and Tore Andre Flo. Arsenal boasted defensive stalwarts David Seaman, Lee Dixon, Tony Adams and Martin Keown, Marc Overmars, Suker, Kanu and their own World Cup winners in Emmanuel Petit and substitute Henry. Fellow Frenchman Patrick Vieira was missing through suspension.
In the previous seven meetings between the sides, a total of 49 bookings and three dismissals had been clocked up and this match continued the trend with the first caution coming in the opening three minutes – Dixon the recipient for over zealously snapping at Le Saux’s heels. The frenetic pace was only slowed by the relentless tackles which were aided by the autumn downpour and Suker was soon into the book for a sliding challenge on Le Saux – often the opponents target for rough treatment. In a first half that offered no clear openings, Kanu had two half-chances but drove into the side-netting after Freddie Ljungberg crossed, and headed a Dixon centre high over Ed de Goey’s bar.
Apart from a Chris Sutton header, the home side failed to exert themselves in the Arsenal goal area, but took the lead on 39 minutes after Flo rose between Keown and Dixon to head home Petrescu’s cross from the right. Surprisingly, Flo’s effort was the game’s first on target. Trailing at half-time and displaying the defensive frailties that had seen Barcelona put four past Seaman three days earlier and first choice left-back Nigel WInterburn ‘rested’, Arsenal would have to dig deep for any rewards. Just six minutes after the restart, the deficit was increased as Petrescu, assist for Chelsea’s first, turned scorer of their second – Le Saux providing a peach of a cross from the left in what was to prove his last notable contribution to the game, shortly being replaced by Gus Poyet. “We want five,” was the chant from some Chelsea supporters – they were to be granted that number, but not in the desired form.
Wenger’s men would need to re-group and fast as they were in danger of sinking without trace. As the game intensified and seven others wrote themselves into referee Alan Wilkie’s book, the visitors were clearly missing the aggression, bite and drive of Vieira alongside Petit who was returning after a 13 game injury lay-off. Changes were made. Versatile Argentine Nelson Vivas replaced Petit and Henry, in what was his debut season, was introduced for Ljungberg. Meanwhile, Vialli opted to substitute Flo with 20 minutes remaining after the striker had threatened to make it 3-0 with a low drive on the run.
With 75 minutes gone and the clock ticking Overmars’ mi-shit shot fell to Kanu who cooly planted the ball past de Goey in the Chelsea goal – the first the Dutchman had conceded of the 1999/00 campaign, although he wouldn’t have to wait long for a second. Arsenal, buoyed by that Kanu strike, started to believe they could get something from the game and began to seize the initiative. In the 83rd minute, they were again celebrating. With the home side now struggling to match the visitors’ urgency, Poyet failed to make contact with and clear Overmars’ cross which eventually found Kanu who took one touch to control and drove his shot to the left of de Goey to make it 2-2.
Chelsea were stunned back into action and as the match drew to a close, Sutton and then Lebeouf briefly threatened to restore Chelsea’s lead only to be denied by headed clearances from Keown. Both teams appeared happy with a point – Arsenal to have rescued one and Chelsea to escape with one. But with ninety minutes on the clock, midway into the Arsenal half, Chelsea skipper Dennis Wise’s attempts to feed Babyaro on the left wing are thwarted by Overmars chested interception. Referee Wilkie ignored the home fans chorus of “handball” and allowed play to continue, where the ball fell kindly into the path of Suker, who approached the Chelsea area with the option of Kanu to his left and Overmars right. With tired legs, Suker woefully over-hit a pass intended to the Nigerian. As the ball approached the byline for a Chelsea throw, Chelsea right-back Albert Ferrer chose to send the ball forwards in a bid to mount another attack. His clearance cannoned off Kanu, who had chased what seemed a lost cause, and stayed in play as the ball slowed in surface water by the left hand corner of the pitch. Ferrer had slipped leaving Kanu in a straight race with the onrushing De Goey to keep the ball in. With a drop of the shoulder and quick readjustment of feet, Kanu sidestepped the goalkeeper, just keeping the ball in play, ignored the screams of Suker and Overmars for the square ball and curled his shot over the heads of Marcel Desailly and Frank Leboeuf and into the net from an acute angle.
Kanu ran to celebrate with the travelling fans as the Arsenal bench erupted. The Chelsea players were gob-smacked, by the scoreline, the result and the moment of individual brilliance that had just condemned them to defeat. With north London rivals Spurs beating second placed Manchester United, Arsenal were going joint top of the table with Leeds.
“I thought the game was over and to lose again would have caused us huge damage psychologically. It was an amazing goal. I was surprised because I thought he was going to cross it, but he plays his own game. Great players