Tuesday 27 June 2017

Magical second coming well worth the wait for galvanised Gunners faithful

Jeremy Wilson

Having kept the Arsenal fans waiting for five years, Thierry Henry had evidently decided that another five minutes would not make any difference.

An unusually large number of people had arrived early at the Emirates last night to catch a glimpse of their returning hero but, predictably, Henry was the last of the Arsenal squad to emerge for the pre-match warm-up.

A wave for the fans and some photographs with the mascot followed, confirming that Henry, even while trying to be understated, had not completely lost his taste for the limelight.

The cheer from even a half-empty stadium was considerable. A shirt with his new number, 12, beneath the word 'legend' was draped over one of the advertising boards.

It made a mockery of Arsene Wenger's hopeful request last week for Henry's return to be low-key.

"It's important to keep this story as quiet as possible," Wenger said, prompting laughter from the press room and eventually even himself.

The staff at Arsenal had clearly also decided that it was futile to try to underplay the second coming of a player already immortalised in bronze outside the Emirates.

Indeed, since Henry's loan signing was officially confirmed on Friday -- just half an hour before the deadline to be registered for last night's game -- there have been 15 stories on the club's website with a headline relating to their former captain.

Henry also adorned the match-day programme under the headline 'He's Back', and the first 15 pages contained nine photographs of the club's record goalscorer. His name was also on the lips of almost 60,000 people inside the Emirates, including even the Leeds fans who had seen him score 11 goals in 11 games against their club.

The only place where Henry's name could not be found was in the starting line-up. Wenger had consistently stressed that his most famous signing would be used only as a squad player and Henry duly took his place on the bench, with Andrey Arshavin, Marouane Chamakh and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain all preferred in the attacking positions.

Chamakh was playing his last game before leaving for the Africa Cup of Nations; with Gervinho already departed, it is easy to see the logic in Henry's return.

That rationale was underlined during a first half last night when, in the absence of Robin van Persie and Theo Walcott, Arsenal lacked their usual attacking purpose. Arshavin was dangerous only sporadically, Chamakh was again anonymous while Oxlade-Chamberlain remains a work in progress.

With 46 minutes gone, Henry could no longer contain himself and began to warm up. In dropping a hint to Wenger, he also drew a standing ovation from the supporters. As the deadlock continued past the hour point, the chants for Henry grew louder and more persistent until finally, with 23 minutes of the match remaining, Henry emerged.

That he should come on alongside Walcott, a player who idolised him as a schoolboy, was somehow appropriate, while the accompanying cheer was equal to anything since the Emirates opened in 2006.

The first surprise was that Henry directly replaced Chamakh and, rather than playing in a less demanding position on the flank, resumed his role as the main central striker. That was a big ask of any 34-year-old, not least one who most recently played competitively in October.

Undaunted, Henry began to show that his footballing brain remains as sharp as ever. He quickly began pulling the Leeds defence into difficult areas and, having been on the pitch only nine minutes, took up position between the right-back and centre-back.

Alex Song knew where his former team-mate would be, threading a precise pass. There was work to be done but Henry quickly shifted the ball on to his right and passed the ball beyond Andy Lonergan with a nonchalance that was reminiscent of his wonderful best.

Having shown such poise and calm, Henry exploded into celebration, thumping his chest and seeking Wenger for a huge touchline hug. It felt like 2002, not 2012, all over again. Henry had demonstrated that his comeback always made perfect footballing sense.

Arsenal's long-term transfer targets are Lukasz Podolski and Mario Gotze but the Germany internationals are seen as unattainable in this transfer window. And, as Wenger himself said, where else could he find an available option of Henry's quality? (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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