For a long time, London had been fully painted red as Arsenal dominated bragging rights in the capital under Arsene Wenger.
Fifteen years ago, Arsenal had just won their third Premier League title, remarkably finishing the season unbeaten in a story that wowed the footballing world.
The unprecedented achievement lives on in footballing folklore. Will it ever happen again in the Premier League? Manchester City, Liverpool, Chelsea and Co have tried but have ultimately not succeeded so far.
Arsenal under Wenger had become one of the most feared teams in Europe, even brushing off English giants Manchester United to titles and instilling fear into legendary manager Sir Alex Ferguson.
Arsenal were the top dogs not just in London but in England in 2004. However, one club in particular were attempting to knock the Gunners off their perch.
And it came in the form of an ambitious club from King’s Road.
Even before Wenger moved to north London in 1996 from Nagoya Grampus Eight in Japan, Arsenal had control of the keys to the capital.
Under the management of George Graham, the Gunners had won the first division title twice within three seasons between the years of 1989-91 before claiming the European Cup Winners’ Cup in 1994.
To highlight their dominance in London, Chelsea hadn’t won a league title since 1955, while Tottenham’s last triumph dates back to 1961.
One battle that displayed Arsenal’s superiority was their dramatic 3-2 comeback in 1999 at Stamford Bridge, which will always be remembered for Nigerian striker Kanu.
Tore Andre Flo and Dan Petrescu fired Chelsea into a commanding 2-0 lead but it was Kanu, who had the last laugh, scoring one of the best hat-tricks in history with just 15 minutes remaining. Kanu’s last goal stole the show.
In the 90th minute, Chelsea’s Ed de Goey raced out of his goal to close down Kanu but the Arsenal man dribbled around him on the byline before somehow slotting home into the roof of the net past defenders Marcel Desailly and Frank Leboeuf on the goalline.
‘Kanu believe it’, shouted commentator Martin Tyler as the Arsenal fan favourite knocked in the winner for the visitors. Even when up against it, Wenger’s men always delivered.
But Chelsea were on the rise and the introduction of billionaire owner Roman Abramovich signalled a shift in power.
Abramovich brought the club in a staggering deal worth £140million in July 2003, which was the biggest takeover in British football history at the time.
On the morning of July 2, 2003, Tim Henman was gearing up for a crucial Wimbledon quarter-final and David Beckham became a galactico at Real Madrid.
But both stories were overlooked on the back pages as the little-known Russian businessman became owner of Chelsea. It was the start of something big in SW6. Little did they know at the time, the Blues would win go on to win five Premier League titles, the Champions League and Europa League, surpassing Arsenal’s trophy haul in that respect.
They finished second behind Arsenal in Abramovich’s first full season at Stamford Bridge during the 2003-04 campaign. While they ended 11 points behind, it was a statement of intent that they were on their way up… and quickly.
In the summer of 2004, Claudio Ranieri’s time was up and Chelsea moved fast to appoint exciting Portuguese manager Jose Mourinho, who dubbed himself the ‘Special One’ in his first press conference at the club. Out with the old, in with the new.
Mourinho’s exuberant confidence, which many took as arrogance, translated onto the pitch as the signings of Didier Drogba, Petr Cech, Arjen Robben and Ricardo Carvalho, alongside Chelsea boys and English talents Frank Lampard and John Terry, took the club to pastures new.
In his debut season in charge, the Blues won their first Premier League title in style, losing only one game as they finished a whole 12 points above reigning champions Arsenal.
But Arsenal had been dealt a killer blow the season before that by Chelsea, which still haunts the Gunners to this day. The Blues rolled up to Highbury on April 6, 2004 in the Champions League during the Invincibles season.
Ranieri’s men, who drew the first-leg 1-1 at Stamford Bridge, rocked up as underdogs as Arsenal arguably had their best chance of winning Europe’s elite competition for the first time in their history.
Arsenal took control of the tie when Jose Antonio Reyes popped up with the opener at Highbury in first-half injury-time. But six minutes into the second-half, Frank Lampard equaised to put the quarter-final clash firmly in the balance.
The clock was ticking down and extra-time was looming but in the 87th minute, heartbreak took over in north London for Wenger’s men as Wayne Bridge of all people stepped up and slotted home past Jens Lehmann to fire Chelsea into the semis. Highbury was stunned, their dream of winning the Champions League was gone for another season.
The Blues’ exciting era continued to gather pace as the rivalry picked up another spicy element after Ashley Cole controversially swapped north London for west London in 2006 as Chelsea successfully defended their Premier League crown.
Cole’s Arsenal career came to a bitter end after the Champions League final defeat by Barcelona in Paris. It is an understatement to say it left Gunners fans fuming.
Hostilities were at an all-time high whenever Arsenal and Chelsea clashed – Cole left the club he had spent the whole of his young life watching, supporting and dreaming of one day representing.
Cole became a mainstay and one of Arsenal’s biggest starts under Wenger and it was thought he may even one day become captain of his boyhood club after Patrick Vieira stepped down.
But his move to Chelsea defined the zeitgeist of the times in English football. His bitter transfer signalled a partial relinquishing of Arsenal’s powers while Chelsea kept growing in their pursuit of becoming one of the most dominant forces in the world, which would be backed with huge financial muscle-power.
While Arsenal became known as a selling club, seeing star players and captains leave for some of their biggest rivals due to resettling debts over their moves to the Emirates, Chelsea continued to grow with big-money signings.
And inevitably, whenever the two teams met from then onwards, hostility was at an all-time high between Arsenal fans and Cole. Betrayal.
But it wasn’t just the Cole factor that made tensions grow but just as much the fact that Chelsea were now a massive threat to Arsenal’s dominance and it led to many feisty encounters down the years.
Not long after his appointment, Mourinho soon replaced Ferguson as Wenger’s biggest arch-nemesis, with the Portuguese boss later down the line labelling the Frenchman ‘a specialist in failure.’
Mourinho continued to get the better of Arsenal’s longest-serving manager. And one of those times where the ‘Special One’ got one over Wenger was the 2007 League Cup final.
Theo Walcott, one of England’s hottest prospects at the time, put Arsenal ahead with a fine finish before the Didier Drogba scored twice to ensure Chelsea lifted yet another trophy at the Milennium Stadium.
The match didn’t end without fire though as the two teams came to blows during injury-time with Cesc Fabregas and Lampard coming to blows following.
The Spaniard dragged Lampard away by the neck after the England midfielder had confronted Kolo Toure after another incident and a mass brawl broke out. Referee Howard Webb ended up dishing out three red cards as well as yellows to Fabregas and Lampard, who became long-term rivals.
Mourinho was sacked by Chelsea the season after despite just winning both the League Cup and FA Cup. It highlighted the club’s ruthlesness in their quest to conquer Europe.
Drogba became the scourge of Arsenal, seeming to haunt them every time the two London giants battled it out and the recent head-to-head record portrays this.
Arsenal have a miserable recent record at Stamford Bridge, having lost six of their last seven league encounters there. The last victory came thanks to an inspired Robin van Persie back in October 2011.
The Gunners produced a brilliant 5-3 victory following an enthralling end-to-end game. Chelsea went ahead through Lampard but was soon pegged back by an inspired Van Persie hat-trick. However, Terry restored the hosts’ lead for Andre Villas-Boas’ side on the stroke of half-time.
But fans inside the ground witnessed one of the best second-half’s in recent Premier League history. Andre Santos and Walcott netted for Arsenal to put them 3-2 ahead before Juan Mata equalised in the 80th minute.
It was Arsenal who had the last laugh though, with Van Persie scoring twice right at the death to wrap up victory for the visitors, with jubilant celebrations ensuing in the away end. It was a rare moment to treasure for the Gunners faithful and Wenger in particular, who suffered perhaps his most humiliating moment as manager against Chelsea.
March 22, 2014 signalled Wenger’s incredible 1000th game in charge of Arsenal. It was a special landmark that should have been celebrated in a fitting way. But it turned out to be the exact opposite as 10-man Arsenal were thrashed 6-0, to see their faint title hopes go down in flames.
Goals from Samuel Eto’o, Andre Schurrle, Eden Hazard, Oscar and Mohamed Salah turned Wenger’s big day sour – it was the first and only time in Chelsea’s history that they have scored six times against their London rivals.
Wenger was riled up by Mourinho yet again and it showed the season after as the pair squared up on the touchline during Chelsea’s 2-0 victory, with Wenger shoving his enemy managerial counterpart following the latter’s controversial ‘specialist in failure’ comments.
Fortunately for Wenger, Mourinho was finally gone from Chelsea at the second time of asking in 2015 and fortunes began to change at the end of his Arsenal era. One of his most satisfying moments came during the 2017 FA Cup final.
Arsenal ensured Chelsea didn’t do the double after they sunk the Premier League winners at Wembley, thanks to goals from Alexis Sanchez and Aaron Ramsey as Wenger became the manager with the most FA Cup wins in history – 7.
With Chelsea’s spending power diminishing, the two teams are now all of a sudden on a level playing field and the next power shift remains fascinating.
Arsenal and Chelsea meet in Baku for the Europa League final on Wednesday, with the Blues looking for their first European title since 2013 while the Gunners search for their first since 1994.
It is set to be a fascinating battle after Maurizio Sarri’s side pipped Unai Emery’s men to a top four finish in the Premier League. Arsenal head into the game with more pressure on their shoulders, needing nothing but victory to secure their place next season in the Champions League.
Wednesday’s battle is finely poised and it is another intriguing battle in their quest for supremacy. It could go a long way in deciding the next chapter of Arsenal’s intense rivalry with Chelsea.