Throughout his career, Nwankwo Kanu has made his living off the back of having an exquisite touch few men of his size possess, and an instinctive finishing ability that saw him shine on the game's biggest stages.
While a veteran of three FIFA World Cups™, were you only given 15 minutes of his career to see, you could do far worse than the climax to Arsenal's 3-2 victory over Chelsea. Played 15 years ago today, the 6ft 6in Nigerian struck a memorable hat-trick that provided a perfect collage of the finer points of his game.
Two down to Gianluca Vialli's side, who had not conceded at Stamford Bridge all season – largely thanks to World Cup-winning duo Marcel Desailly and Frank Leboeuf in the centre of defence, things looked bleak for the Gunners. However, the former Ajax and Inter Milan striker inspired an unlikely turnaround, with his winning goal becoming the stuff of North London legend.
“I have very good memories of that game,” the Olympic gold medal winner told FIFA.com. “It felt great to score against such a formidable team as Chelsea and it just shows the game is not over until it is over.
“I was not particularly out to get the better of Marcel, Frank or [goalkeeper Ed] de Goey that day, I just wanted to play my game and bring out the best of the tricks in my bag to outwit my opponent and score for my team.”
After a pair of headers from Tore Andre Flo and Dan Petrescu had put the hosts ahead either side of half-time, and cruising with 75 minutes on the clock, Kanu took the sting out of Marc Overmars' mis-hit shot to expertly toe-poke Arsenal back into the game.
I lifted up my head and picked out the far top corner of the net, which I quickly curled the ball into pretty much from where I stood.
Seven minutes later they were level, with the same duo combining. Overmars skipped into space beyond Leboeuf, before firing low across the box. He found his West African team-mate, where Kanu opened his body to cushion the ball into space, thumping the ball emphatically beyond the Dutch stopper. The momentum had violently swung, but it took until stoppage time for the Arsenal frontman to complete his treble, but it was worth the wait.
Having charged down Albert Ferrer's clearance on the left flank, Kanu was presented with the unexpected and imposing frame of De Goey, charging along the byline and out of his area. To his credit, the former Super Eagles star was coolness personified. “I worked the goalkeeper into a position where I could sell a dummy to him, which of course he bought,” he recalled.“I lifted up my head and picked out the far top corner of the net, which I quickly curled the ball into pretty much from where I stood.”
The former African Player of the Year does himself something of a disservice, as the goal was extraordinary. Standing no more than two yards from the touchline and just inside the penalty area, placing the ball high over Desailly and Leboeuf who were stationed on the goal-line, it was an exceptional finish to cap an exceptional 15 minutes from him.
"I expected him to cross," Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger admitted after the game. "If he hadn't scored it could have upset you because he really should have passed. However, great players can prove you wrong. It is one of the best goals I've seen."
It was a stark change in fortunes for Kanu, who had missed a penalty against Fiorentina in the UEFA Champions League in midweek, but starting in place of Dennis Bergkamp – a man Kanu fondly called “'the eye', because of his fantastic foresight” – he repaid the fans in perfect style.
Kanu now spends his time helping run the Kanu Heart Foundation, which has helped carry out open heart surgery on 485 children from Nigeria and around Africa to date. “ Winning the double with Arsenal and being part of 'the Invincibles' [who went a season unbeatenin 2003/04] are good memories but starting the foundation tops them all,” he said with earnest. “But with 300 kids still on the waiting list, we have to do all we can to save the lives of these children.”