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Premier League flashback - 2003-04 review: The Invincibles

The Premier League is 20 years old and has enjoyed plenty of highlights. Here, Total Football continues its series, looking back at some of the highs and lows.

The 2003-04 campaign belonged to one team only and that was Arsenal.

The Gunners went through the entire league season unbeaten, breaking records for fun and becoming the first side to achieve this feat since Preston North End in 1888. They were ‘The Invincibles.’

Leeds’s sorry decline continued as they were relegated, three years to the day when they had featured in a Champions League semi-final. Leicester City and Wolves also made instant returns to the Football League.

CHAMPIONS: Arsenal

RUNNERS-UP: Chelsea

THIRD PLACE: Manchester United

RELEGATED: Leicester City, Leeds United, Wolves

TOP SCORERS: Thierry Henry (Arsenal) 30, Alan Shearer (Newcastle United) 22, Louis Saha (Fulham & Manchester United) 20, Ruud Van Nistlerooy (Manchester United) 20, Mikael Forssell (Birmingham City) 17, Nicolas Anelka (Manchester City) 17, Michael Owen (Liverpool) 16, Juan Pablo Angel (Aston Villa) 16, Yakubu (Portsmouth) 16, Robert Pires (Arsenal) 14, James Beattie (Southampton) 14, Robbie Keane (Tottenham Hotspur) 14

BIGGEST WIN: Portsmouth 6-1 Leeds United (8 November 2003)

HIGHEST SCORING GAMES: Manchester City 6-2 Bolton Wanderers (18 October 2003), Tottenham Hotspur 4-4 Leicester City (22 February 2004), Middlesbrough 5-3 Birmingham City (20 March 2004)

PFA PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Thierry Henry (Arsenal)

PFA YOUNG PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Scott Parker (Charlton Athletic & Chelsea)

On Saturday, 15 May 2004, Arsenal completed a unique feat that is unlikely to be matched for some time to come.

They beat Leicester City 2-1 on the final day of the season at Highbury to go through an entire league season, without losing. The final record was P38, W26, D12, L0. A place in history belonged to Arsene Wenger’s awesome team.

Wenger elected to keep the squad together from the previous season, except for David Seaman, who moved to Manchester City. He would be replaced by German goalkeeper, Jens Lehmann from Borussia Dortmund.

Manchester United said goodbye to David Beckham. The England captain switched to Spain, linking up with Real Madrid for £25m. As Beckham departed, young 18-year-old Cristiano Ronaldo arrived at Old Trafford from Sporting Lisbon.

Liverpool hoped to improve on their previous campaign, by signing Steve Finnan from Fulham and they won the race to sign Harry Kewell for £5m from Leeds United.

David O’Leary returned to management at Aston Villa, replacing Graham Taylor and he signed Sunderland duo, Gavin McCann and Thomas Sorensen. The Black Cats also sold Kevin Phillips to Southampton.

However, the main summer spending happened at Chelsea. On 2 July 2003, Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich bought Chelsea Football Club and the landscape of the football transfer economy changed forever.

The West London side went from penniless rags to rich rogues in a matter of hours and went shopping to the equivalent of Harrods.

They signed goalkeepers Marco Ambrosio and Jurgen Macho on free transfers, both signed pre-Abramovich. Young West Ham right back Glen Johnson arrived for £6m and the Hammers also received £6.6m for Joe Cole.

Irish rising star Damien Duff arrived from Blackburn for £17m, Parma received £15.8m for striker Adrian Mutu, Juan Sebastian Veron was a £15m capture from Manchester United and Wayne Bridge moved from Southampton for £7m.

A billionaire start

The new Abramovich era began with a testing fixture at Liverpool on the opening weekend, where Chelsea had never won in Premier League history before.

Goals from Veron and Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink changed that stat, as Chelsea won 2-1 and started superbly, with five wins in six matches, including a 5-0 thumping of newly promoted Wolves in September.

Wolves were back in the top flight but they had a quick reality check of how life in the main division was going to be. They lost 5-1 at Blackburn on the opening day and had to wait until the beginning of October for their first win.

Another returnee was Portsmouth and under the stewardship of Harry Redknapp, they made a much better start.

New signings Teddy Sheringham and Patrik Berger combined to give them a 2-1 win over Aston Villa in the first domestic game of the Premier League season.

Sheringham went onto score a hat-trick in a 4-0 triumph at home to Bolton, which did take Pompey top for 24 hours in August. They then grabbed an excellent point at Highbury in September.

Arsenal won their first four matches and showed signs of what they were capable of from the outset. The way they demolished Middlesbrough 4-0 at the Riverside Stadium was a sign of things to come.

Manchester United’s new no.7, Ronaldo made an impressive cameo on the opening day, as a Ryan Giggs brace saw Bolton’s recent excellent record at Old Trafford come to an end.

Sir Alex Ferguson’s side struggled though in early weeks and lost to a late James Beattie header at Southampton in late August, ending their nine month unbeaten Premier League run.

Manchester City began life at their new home, the City of Manchester Stadium. It started with a 1-1 draw against Portsmouth before Arsenal recovered from a comical Lauren own goal, to take all three points from Eastlands.

Fireworks at Old Trafford

You didn’t need a degree in psychology to work out how important it was for Arsenal to avoid defeat at Old Trafford on September 21, especially after the way they lost the league title in the previous season.

The game was a stale affair and finished 0-0 but the fireworks began, in the last ten minutes.

Patrick Vieira kicked out at Ruud Van Nistlerooy and was sent off. Then, Martin Keown brought down Diego Forlan in stoppage time and the Red Devils had the chance to win the match from the penalty spot.

Incredibly, Van Nistlerooy hit the crossbar and when the final whistle blew, Arsenal players lost the plot and ganged up on the Dutchman, shoving and pushing him around like a ragdoll.

In total, eight players were charged from the two clubs. The Gunners had to pay a £275,000 fine to the FA, Ashley Cole was fined and Lauren, Ray Parlour, Keown and Vieira were banned for a combined total of nine games.

Away from this action and Glenn Hoddle became the first managerial casualty of the season, sacked by Tottenham after a 3-1 home defeat to his former side, Southampton.

This left the North Londoners in the bottom three, with just one win so far and David Pleat took caretaker charge for the rest of the season.

The most unlikely hat-trick of the season came at The Valley, where Kevin Lisbie hit a spectacular treble to help Charlton to a 3-2 victory over Liverpool. The Reds lost their next three matches and were pinned into midtable.

After an embarrassing penalty shootout exit in Champions League qualification to Partizan Belgrade, Newcastle made a terrible start.

Alan Shearer scored the only goal to defeat Southampton on 4 October, which was their first win at the seventh attempt of asking.

Suspended for eight months

It was revealed in October that Manchester United’s Rio Ferdinand had missed a mandatory FA drugs test, as he was moving house on the day of the test.

Before Christmas, at Bolton’s Reebok Stadium, he was banned for eight months by the FA, ruling him out of United’s title run-in from January onwards and eliminating him from Euro 2004.

Wolves produced a sterling fightback in October, to beat fellow relegation rivals in distress, Leicester City. Trailing 3-0 after 27 minutes, they fought back superbly.

Colin Cameron scored twice and an 86th minute winner from Henri Camara ensured a 4-3 victory for Wolves. Mickey Adams was stunned as the Foxes leaky defence was found wanting again.

Manchester United suffered a shock 3-1 home defeat to Fulham and Chelsea’s unbeaten record also went, losing 2-1 at Highbury.

Thierry Henry scored one of the softest goals of his career, when Carlo Cudicini let a simple Robert Pires cross, through his grasp and into Henry’s path.

The men from West London bounced back in style though, not conceding a goal in November and smashing Newcastle United 5-0 in the process.

They went top at the end of November, when a Frank Lampard penalty defeated Manchester United.

They were helped by a stunning performance from Fulham’s Edwin van der Sar, who almost single handily kept Arsenal out at Highbury, as Fulham earnt a 0-0 draw.

The decline at Leeds continued and Peter Reid was sacked in November, after a 6-1 mauling at Portsmouth, which was the worst defeat of the league season. Eddie Gray was handed the impossible task at Elland Road.

Shock results do happen

On Christmas Day, Manchester United sat on top of the table, narrowly ahead of Arsenal and Chelsea. Liverpool and Newcastle languished in sixth and eighth respectively, below Southampton and Charlton Athletic.

Charlton’s momentum continued, when they shocked Chelsea to win 4-2 on Boxing Day at The Valley.

Scott Parker put in a man of the match performance, which later encouraged Claudio Ranieri to buy him from the Addicks for £10m in the January transfer window.

The other top sides also added to their squads, with Manchester United splashing out £12.6m on Fulham’s Louis Saha and Arsenal paying Sevilla £17m for Spanish starlet, Jose Antonio Reyes.

Chelsea’s lack of form continued as the New Year dawned and they were beaten by Liverpool at Stamford Bridge for the first time since 1989. Bruno Cheyrou scored the only goal.

Then, on 17 January, one of the biggest surprises in Premier League history occurred at Molineux.

Kenny Miller scored the only goal, as bottom club Wolves beat Manchester United 1-0. Ferdinand limped out injured and into his eight month suspension and Ferguson’s side never really recovered.

At the wrong end of the table, there was brief hope for Leeds with victories over high-flying Charlton and Fulham but a 3-1 loss at Wolves, which included a bizarre Alan Smith own goal, set them on another run of five successive defeats.

Tottenham remained in trouble, as did Portsmouth, Blackburn Rovers and Manchester City.

David Seaman said goodbye to playing professional football, when a recurring shoulder injury saw him retire in January at the age of 40. Kevin Keegan moved quickly to bring in the current England no.1, David James from first division West Ham United.

Gunners start to stretch out

A routine 3-1 away win at Wolves in early February saw Arsenal establish a new club record of 24 games unbeaten at the start of a season.

Three days later, Thierry Henry scored a double to beat Southampton 2-0, joining the club of players to have scored 100 goals in the Premier League.

This was the last match in charge on the South Coast for Gordon Strachan, who stepped down to take a break from football. He was replaced at St. Mary’s by the Plymouth Argyle manager, Paul Sturrock.

On 21 February, Arsenal visited Chelsea at Stamford Bridge. Eidur Gudjohnsen scored inside 31 seconds but was later sent off and by then, the game had been turned around.

Patrick Vieira and Edu scored inside the first 20 minutes as Arsenal won 2-1, effectively eliminating Chelsea from the title race.

After a disappointing 3-2 home defeat to Middlesbrough, Manchester United fell further off the pace, when they were held 1-1 at home by penniless Leeds United, with Smith scoring the equaliser.

Another 1-1 draw at Fulham the following Saturday, left them nine points adrift of Arsenal and an early Champions League exit at the hands of Jose Mourinho’s FC Porto, added to the gloom around Old Trafford.

As Chelsea and United slipped up, Arsenal continued to march on and broke Nottingham Forest’s record of going 29 games unbeaten at the start of a season, by drawing 1-1 with the Red Devils at Highbury.

Newcastle and Charlton were the favourites for fourth spot, after Liverpool lost 2-0 at Southampton in mid-March.

Michael Owen had a penalty saved, as Sturrock made the perfect start as Saints boss. Gerard Houllier’s face that day suggested he was on seriously borrowed time.

The end of the road for Leeds United

Despite beating Leicester City and Blackburn Rovers in April, Leeds always looked like fighting a losing battle.

In early May, they surrendered 4-1 at Bolton. Marc Viduka was sent off for the second time in a month and they were relegated, barring a mathematical miracle.

The dream turning into a nightmare at Leeds is a perfect example of how quickly it can all go wrong on a financial footing. They haven’t returned to the Premier League since.

Leicester City and Wolves made instant returns to the Football League too. Wolves beat Everton 2-1 on 1 May but Paulo Wanchope scored the only goal for Manchester City to defeat Newcastle, sending Dave Jones side down.

Leicester’s 2-2 draw at Charlton wasn’t enough either, as Blackburn beat Manchester United 1-0 on the same afternoon.

Portsmouth stayed up, after going on a brilliant run of just one defeat in their last nine games, meaning they finished a creditable 13th at the first attempt.

Blackburn and Manchester City had dismal seasons and so did Everton, who dropped from 7th to 17th in the league table this time around.

A 1-1 draw at Manchester United on the penultimate weekend of the season, secured Chelsea their best league finish since winning the title in 1955. However, that wasn’t enough for Roman Abramovich and Claudio Ranieri was sacked at the end of May.

Newcastle’s 3-3 draw at Southampton on 12 May meant Liverpool won the race to finish fourth and qualify for the Champions League.

However, they finished a massive 30 points behind the champions and Houllier’s services were dispensed with, eight days after the season concluded.

The title and a place in history belongs to Arsenal

There was talk of a wobble at Highbury after damaging FA Cup semi-final and Champions League quarter-final heartbreak, in the space of four days.

However, this was brushed aside by Henry, who scored a wonderful hat-trick to overcome Liverpool 4-2 on Good Friday.

Seven days later, he added another four goals as Leeds were routed 5-0 at Highbury, leaving Sky commentator Andy Gray to say; ‘I’ve seen most things in this league in the last 25 years. I haven’t seen anything like him!’

Then, they won the title at of all places, White Hart Lane. Tottenham did launch a second half fightback to secure a 2-2 draw but the Gunners had wrapped up the title at their old rivals and it felt good.

After draws with Birmingham and Portsmouth, followed by a Reyes goal to beat Fulham at Loftus Road, it was onto the final day and to see if history could be made.

It wasn’t in the script for Wenger’s side to fall behind in the first half, due to a header from old Arsenal boy, Paul Dickov.

Once Ashley Cole was bundled down early in the second half by Frank Sinclair, it was never in doubt.

Henry equalised from the spot, before a lovely pass from Dennis Bergkamp allowed captain Vieira to have the final say in a glorious season.

Wenger admitted that he always had this dream and now, it had become reality.

The Arsenal team of 2003-04 were utterly awesome and one of the best in history. They were quite literally, unbeatable.

By Simon Wright – Follow me on Twitter @Siwri88

Follow Total Football on Twitter: @TotalFootball12

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