I started off the night resting in my hotel room, SkySports on the television, droning away about something or another — probably about how poorly Nicklas Bendtner had played on the weekend. Every few minutes, when I thought about the impending match, anticipation nipped at the pit of my stomach. Negative thoughts kept popping up; it is an important match, our defense is shaky at times, we can’t concede, how will the players step up without Cesc in the team? On and on, invasive thoughts kept getting to me I needed to take the edge off.
Camera, video, scarf, hat, sweater, wallet, I stuffed them into my bag and skipped out into the night looking for a beer. The Marquis Cornwallis in Russel Square is usually quiet at 5pm and they have a large selection. Sloshed that down quickly and headed over to the free wi-fi at Starbucks to check my email, the edge to the anticipation dulled slightly.
Les had texted me to meet him at the Famous Cock right outside the Highbury and Islington tube station, quick trip to Kings Cross, switch to the Victoria line, and I’m up at the pub. As soon as I walk in, Les greets me “Are you Tim?” and “Can I get you a pint?”
Yes please, I’ll have a Young’s bitter.
That gets down smooth, and another and another, the edge is fully dulled now. Les and I talk about all the topics of the day, being a supporter, writing a blog, the Red Knights, cup finals, and him living right outside the stadium. 7pm, time to walk to the stadium I want to get there early.
We cross Highbury fields and continue the conversation, Les tells me that where he lives he can hear the stadium roar before he gets to see the goals on television. Bolstered by the confidence of several pints, I predict he’ll hear plenty of roars tonight.
We get to the stadium I head one way, him the other. The crowd is buzzing now and I pass the away supporter’s entrance and hear the sounds of them singing in Portuguese. This is not what I thought it would be. I thought there would only be a few Porto supporters but instead they sound like an entire stadium of supporters. They are absolutely roaring.
My gate is the next one over from the away pen, not behind the goal, but on the side line. Saturday I had the absolute last seat on the left, front row, right next to the away support. Not my favorite seat ever but not the worst either. I’m anticipating similar, something more toward the corner and further down to the front. Section 19, Row 25, Seat 574 is an incredible surprise; it’s further back and more important, you turn right toward the center line and away from the corner. I stand there in awe looking around. I’ve sat center line, upper deck before, but at twice the price. This is possibly the best seat I have ever gotten. Little did I know.
Before I know it, the Wonder of You is piped in and to my surprise the guys around me are all singing along. I must have found the 10 guys in the whole stadium who actually like that song. They loudspeaker switches to the Champions League song, the kids wave the Champions League logo in the center circle and now the Porto fans are chanting and stomping like mad. The Arsenal supporters roar back and suddenly the Emirates has taken on a different tone. I’ve never heard the Arsenal supporters sing so loud and I’ve never been so close to away supporters who are so vocal. It’s an amazing back and forth.
I can’t tell who won the coin toss but for some reason Arsenal switch ends of the pitch. That means that the first half is played in the other end of the stadium but the second will be played in ours. Odd, this is the opposite of how the game normally goes.
Kickoff comes and Arsenal are in it right off. The funny thing is that my section is still standing. Normally, the stewards force everyone to sit down but all of section 19, the away pen, and the section behind the goal are all standing, chanting, singing — it’s a war in our corner and the stewards want no part of it. I turn to the guy next to me and ask when they are going to make us sit and he says that they won’t, not for a game this big.
Immediately, Frank de Bleeckere makes it known that he’s not going to allow Porto to play the same rotational fouling tactic they employed at home. Small fouls are called right away and he even ticks one of the Porto players off right away, giving the “no more” signal for a foul. Later, I would jokingly ask one of my fellow supporters how come we can’t get him to referee our league matches? We’d win the league at a trot if a referee gave even a modicum of the protection de Bleeckere offered.
Then, Nasri picks up the ball in midfield, plays a perfect ball to Arshavin who is hauled down in the box. The crowd roars and in the confusion it looks to me like the referee has given a penalty, but no, after the tackle Nicky stole in and despite pressure he’s scored a tenacious goal.
Now we’re singing one-nil to the Arsenal right at the Porto supporters. Undeterred by the score line and the fact that we’ve gotten a very early goal, they respond with some chant that the guys next to me assure me is Portuguese for us being shit.
More singing, this time we’re singing “We’ve only got one Song” for Alex Song who is absolutely dominating the midfield. Up close, his ball control and power are quite something to see. In fact, everything he does is efficient; tackle the ball away, keep possession, turn away from two other midfielders dribble a little and pass to Nasri or Diaby who turn and move the ball up the field to Arshavin.
The little Russian dribbles, uses his body strength to hold off the Porto defenders, gets to the end line, and there’s Bendtner who could have gotten a parking ticket he had been sitting in the 6 yard box that long. Arshavin slots it to him and he couldn’t have missed that if he tried.
Now it’s “two-nil to the Arsenal!” and for the first time the Porto fans have gone a bit quiet. There were a few nervous moments as the half started to wind down, Porto were rocked but they held it together to finish the half without letting in a third goal. In particular, their keeper had a couple of very strong saves and kept them in the tie.
The other amazing thing about Section 19, Row 25 is that I got to get into the toilet right away at half-time. I even had a chance to get a hot dog though to my chagrin UEFA doesn’t allow alcohol sales at Champions League matches so I couldn’t top up and my buzz was starting to wear off. I guess that’s for the best, the Porto supporters seemed crazy enough, the last thing they needed was more booze to turn them into proper animals.
As I’m eating my hot dog I look at some of the “Arsenalization” in my section: there’s a picture of the Invincibles with Clichy making the number 1 sign and there’s a huge banner with all of the hat-trick heroes in Arsenal’s history.
Back to my “seat” for the second half and something has whipped both the Porto fans and the Porto side into a frenzy. The away supporters are now on their seats, making the throat-slash sign at us and chanting something at top volume. Porto responds and start to press Arsenal, the whole stadium knows that they just need one goal and this tie is all even. They are creating chances and I’m starting to get nervous again. We need another goal I say to the guy next to me, he agrees, one more would take the pressure off.
18 nervous minutes later, a moment of sheer brilliance from Samir Nasri turns the tie. He simply splits three men, dribbles to the end line and fires in an insanely acute angled shot off the post and into the back of the net. The stadium erupts in shouts of joy, the gate had been turned and relief spreads across the supporters as we know that the tie is ours.
The signing hadn’t subsided when Clichy (I think, I was still singing at top volume) cleared and Arshavin picked the ball up just short of the half way line, dribbled and played in Eboue who rounded the keeper to score a brilliant goal.
It looked like this from where I was standing:
Now there were smiles a mile wide and rosy cheeks shining under the floodlights. Happy faces everywhere around me, it’s over for Porto. “Cheerio!”
The next twenty-odd minutes went by quickly with the banter between the Arsenal supporters and the Porto supporters the only real action in the stadium. One thing that I did notice at that point is that Arshavin is amazingly strong. At 5’6″ or so, you’d think he could be pushed around but he’s able to use that low center of gravity to push his larger opponents off the ball and more than once, you can see him actually lean into the defender to create space.
As the game finishes up Theo is introduced and the fans start chanting “Theo Theo Theo!” He has two left-footed shots buzz just wide after some outstanding movement down the right side, jinking back in and setting up the left. It’s almost as if he read Chris Waddle’s latest column where he criticized Theo for not being two-footed and decided to show that the weekend’s left footed goal wasn’t a fluke. I thought Theo was unlucky not to have scored.
And then, at the death, some more brilliant play from Eboue wins Arsenal a penalty which is taken by Bendtner. The team rewarding him for his hard work over the weekend and against Porto.
He steps up and settles the tie with aplomb and the crowd start chanting “Super Nick” in his honor. I remark to the guy next to me that Nicklas is going on the hat-trick heroes wall, just below Arshavin, and he is the first Arsenal player to get 3 goals in a Champions League match since Henry did it against Roma back in 2002.
The ref calls time right at the 90th minute and the crowd erupts in applause. It’s been a very special night for the fans, the players, and even the manager who let his emotions escape a bit when he leapt into the air celebrating Eboue’s 4th goal.
I turn and leave the stadium, again the benefit of the Row 25 seats meaning that I get to leave quickly. Back across Highbury Fields and toward the Highbury and Islington tube station reflecting on the night. I’m so amped up that I just want to jump on anyone with a red and white scarf, hug them and start singing, but I haven’t had enough booze to let down my defenses.
I grab a bus to the Angel station, switch to Piccadilly line at Kings Cross and I’m back to the hotel bar in time for a few pints to try to kill this adrenalin. I meet some Americans and talk football a bit slamming down as much beer as I can so I can hopefully get to bed some time tonight.
The pub closes at midnight and it would be almost another 2 hours before I’m able to get to sleep. As the last of the adrenalin is squeezed out, my body is spent, and I collapse onto the bed. As I drift off to sleep, I put on the It’s Up For Grabs Now Arsenal podcast and listen in wonder as Tayo predicts that Bendtner will come big in the big games.
Perfect, just perfect.