Arsenal are set to meet newly promoted Leeds United at Elland Road this Sunday. It’s been 16 years since Leeds last played a season in the Premier League. They were relegated in May of 2004 after finishing 19th. It was surprising — Leeds was one of the original members of the Premier League when it launched in 1992. In fact, since being founded in 1919, Leeds had spent most of its history in the first tier of English football. Most expected them to return to the top flight quickly. That didn’t happen.
The last time Arsenal faced Leeds in Premier League action was during the 2003-2004 campaign. Of course that was the magical season when the Arsenal Invincibles went undefeated and were crowned champions.
Here’s a look back at those two Premier League encounters.
Arsenal visited Leeds in November 2003 and came away 4-1 winners courtesy of a Thierry Henry brace along with goals from Robert Pires and Gilberto Silva.
In the reverse fixture at Highbury, Arsenal easily defeated Leeds 5-0. Henry recorded a hat trick and added a penalty. Pires added one of his own.
The two teams met one other time that season, and I was lucky enough to get tickets to this match. In January 2004, Arsenal headed north to Elland Road to face Leeds in the third round of the FA Cup.
Elland Road was originally built in 1897 and has been both renovated and expanded over the years. It currently has a seating capacity of just over 37,000. What the stadium lacks in modernity it makes up for in atmosphere.
I found myself seated among the home supporters, so I made sure to keep a low profile. Surprisingly, however, I found the fans were rather welcoming and encountered no problems.
There was one uncomfortable moment, when in the eighth minute I found myself surrounded by a mass of cheering and singing Leeds fans. The moment is etched in my mind. Goalkeeper Jens Lehmann met a back pass and casually attempted to make a clearance. In fact, it was so casual that he accidentally blasted it into the midsection of oncoming Leeds striker Mark Viduka. The Australian knew little about it, but it bounced off of him and back into Arsenal’s net. It was a really embarrassing moment for the German.
Arsenal were an amazing side that season, so I was confident that they would recover from this early mistake. And they did.
As he often did during his Arsenal career, Thierry Henry initiated the comeback when he slotted home a Freddie Ljungberg pass in the 26th minute. Seven minutes later, he set up Edu for the Gunner’s second.
Arsenal didn’t look back and put the game to bed with late goals from Pires and defender Kolo Toure for a 4-1 win. Arsenal went on to lose to Manchester United 0-1 in the semifinals at Villa Park, but that was the FA Cup, and they had bigger and better things to accomplish that season.
There is one player from those rosters that is still playing in the Premier League today. Liverpool midfielder and current Premier League Champion, James Milner featured in all three matches between Leeds and Arsenal that season. In fact, the FA Cup tie occurred on his 18th birthday. You have to give Milner credit for his longevity. His decades long career at the top level is impressive.
Arsenal and Leeds have clashed in the FA Cup a few times since 2003-2004. One moment in particular that stands out is Thierry Henry’s late goal at Emirates Stadium to give the Gunners a 1-0 third round win in January 2012. Henry had returned to Arsenal on loan from New York Red Bulls and had come into the match as a second half sub. It was a signature moment, maybe THE signature moment of his return to North London.
This weekend marks the return of the Arsenal-Leeds Premier League rivalry, and I’m glad that it’s back. Leeds is one of the storied clubs in England, and some of the more recent U.S.-based Premier League fans might not be all that aware of their history. Hopefully this weekend’s match provides an exciting (and red) introduction.