A worthy adversary

After Arsenal and the Premier League said goodbye to Arsene Wenger, we look back at 22 years of rivalry and London derbies between Chelsea and the French manager.

Love him or loathe him, Wenger proved himself a worthy adversary for the Blues. With the Gunners’ appointment of Unai Emery as his successor opening a new era in the two clubs’ rivalry, it seems the perfect time to reflect on some of the best bits from over two decades of passionate encounters.

No sportsman or team achieves true greatness without a strong rival to challenge them and push them on to greater heights. While Chelsea fans won’t be thankful to Wenger for too many things, there is no questioning the fact that his Arsenal sides kept us on our toes and forced us to continue to improve over the years. As Formula One legend Niki Lauda is quoted as saying of his own great rival James Hunt in the film Rush: ‘A wise man gets more from his enemies than a fool from his friends’.

During Wenger’s early years in England, Arsenal and Chelsea were both undergoing something of a revolution. Ours had already begun when Glenn Hoddle, who played under Wenger at Monaco, started introducing a continental approach and style of play at Stamford Bridge, while the newcomer would start a similar process at Highbury.

In that first 1996/97 season, the Blues and the Gunners were the only two Premier League clubs with foreign managers, in our case Ruud Gullit, but Wenger would play a part in the exit of the Dutch boss as we lost to Arsenal in the league and cup in early 1998.

However, Gianluca Vialli replaced Gullit and enjoyed much better fortune against the north-London club, his first match in charge being the second leg of that League Cup semi-final. Goals from Mark Hughes, Roberto Di Matteo and Dan Petrescu meant we won 3-1 to overturn the previous 2-1 loss and book our place in the final, where of course we beat Middlesbrough to lift the first of three trophies that year. Wenger would also be Vialli’s last opponent as Chelsea boss, a 2-2 draw in the Premier League in September 2000.

We met the Gunners in the same competition again the next season, producing one of the finest performances of Vialli’s time as player-manager, winning 5-0 at Highbury with the Italian scoring twice himself (above), alongside Gus Poyet’s brace and a Frank Leboeuf penalty.

It has to be said that in the years which followed Wenger had the edge on us, especially in the Premier League, as we failed to find the consistency to mount a prolonged title challenge, despite our impressive cup runs. Arsenal’s 2-0 victory over the Blues in the 2002 FA Cup final, securing the second domestic Double of Wenger’s time in London, was particularly painful.

However, things were soon starting to look up, helped in no small part by the arrival of Roman Abramovich as owner. Our epic 3-2 aggregate win over the Gunners in the 2004 Champions League quarter-finals, sealed by Wayne Bridge’s winner (below) felt like a defining moment in the two clubs’ rivalry, showing we could not only compete, but best anything Wenger could throw at us on the big stage.

In fact, if anything it was the north half of London which was starting to struggle to keep up with the pace, as Arsenal would win just two matches against us, home and away in all competitions, between that Champions League tie and Christmas 2010.

During that time we inflicted more cup woe on the Gunners, as Wenger’s dedication to youth saw him field the youngest side ever in an English final, in the 2007 League Cup. Ultimately our experience proved too much for the youngsters, including a 19-year-old Cesc Fabregas, as Didier Drogba’s double gave us a 2-1 win in a fiery encounter, John Mikel Obi, Kolo Toure and Emmanuel Adebayor all receiving red cards as tempers flared in stoppage time.

Drogba would again prove to be Wenger and Arsenal’s nemesis when we met in the 2009 FA Cup semi-finals, getting the winner (below) after Florent Malouda had cancelled out Theo Walcott’s goal, the latter also getting the opener in the League Cup meeting two years earlier, and we went on to beat Everton in the final.

Things were fairly even in the early years of this decade, as home advantage had a habit of proving decisive in clashes between Chelsea and Wenger’s Arsenal, despite a particularly painful Premier League loss to the Gunners at Stamford Bridge in 2011, when the lead changed hands several times before two goals in the last five minutes saw Robin van Persie complete a hat-trick and give Wenger a 5-3 win.

It would prove to be the last win Wenger would celebrate in SW6, though, his team picking up just one point here in the six seasons since as the pendulum swung decisively in our favour, especially in the Premier League.

The 6-0 mauling the Frenchman’s side endured at the Bridge in 2014 – Samuel Eto'o, Andre Schurrle, Eden Hazard and Mohamed Salah all getting on the score sheet, in addition to a brace from Oscar – on the occasion of Wenger’s 1,000th game in charge of Arsenal must have particularly galling.

Despite the lower scoreline, the 3-1 win en route to the 2017 title was just as emphatic, as Hazard humiliated the Gunners’ backline to score a wonder goal after Marcos Alonso had opened the scoring. Fabregas provided the icing on the cake by scoring against his former club, before substitute Olivier Giroud’s injury-time goal for Arsenal made the game seem closer than it actually was.

To be fair to Wenger, he did have a couple of parting shots up his sleeve to remind us that we didn’t have it all our own way against him. They came in the 2017 FA Cup final, when Arsenal defeated us 2-1 to deny Antonio Conte’s team a Double, and in this season’s League Cup semi-final, when a 2-1 aggregate loss prevented us from reaching both domestic cup finals.

All in all, it has been a rivalry of many ups and downs on both sides of the divide. One thing is for certain, though. For better or worse, our next London derby against Arsenal will feel more than a little different without Wenger sat in the opposition dug-out.