Tuesday 25 September 2018

Henry keeping low profile as he plots demise of fellow countrymen

Belgium's assistant coach Thierry Henry. Photo: Franck Fife/AFP/Getty Images
Belgium's assistant coach Thierry Henry. Photo: Franck Fife/AFP/Getty Images

James Ducker

They were team-mates when France conquered the world 20 years ago but, ahead of meeting Thierry Henry tonight for a place in the World Cup final, Didier Deschamps was blunt in describing his old friend's current status.

"When you go to a club abroad and play against one from your own country, you are part of the enemy," said the France manager.

"This time, in an international match, it is much higher. He is facing his home nation.

"From the time he became an assistant to Roberto Martinez, he did know that can happen. It is a difficult situation - bizarre - it is not easy for him."

Kevin De Bruyne even admitted that the Belgium team "would find it normal" ahead of the biggest game in the country's history tonight, to hear their coach singing La Marseillaise before the kick-off.

Uncharacteristically, it is a situation that Henry has dealt with by keeping a low profile.

The former Arsenal star has given only one interview about Belgium since joining their staff in 2016, in which he stressed his place as third among Martinez's staff. He has not talked with journalists after any of Belgium's five wins in Russia.

The message is very clear: this is about Martinez and the players, not him.

Except, of course, we are still talking about how one of France's greatest players is now planning their demise.

It is, after all, like David Beckham sitting on the Croatia bench alongside Zlatko Dalic in Moscow tomorrow night.

Even many of this France team clearly still look up to Henry with a sense of awe. His international career ended only eight years ago and so there was also some crossover with current captain Hugo Lloris.

"I was lucky to play with him for two seasons," said Lloris. "A huge player; a great gentleman of French football.

"It is a little bit peculiar but that is his career. His heart will be split.

"Before anything, he is French and he left a mark on the history of Les Bleus. He has scored the most goals for France (51) and is second in caps (123)."

And so, could that make any subconscious difference to his commitment tonight?

"He will be with Belgium and do everything to help the Belgium team," said Lloris.

So, in the absence of any direct insight from the 40-year-old himself, just what is his exact role and influence in the Belgium camp? Those who have been closely following the squad say that Henry begins most training sessions in the way you might expect from a middle-ranking member of the first-team coaching staff. He sets up the pitch to his manager's preference and then tidies away cones at the end.

He is sometimes seen working specifically with strikers Romelu Lukaku and Michy Batshuayi on attacking patterns and set-pieces, but also simply circulating to dispense words of wisdom. He certainly has their attention.

Batshuayi is among several players in the squad who once had a poster of Henry on his bedroom wall.

Lukaku, who at the age of 25 already has only 11 fewer international goals than Henry, believes that he has personally improved his all-round game.

"I am learning from him every day - the way of moving, how to find the spaces, control the ball as well as possible," he said.

Henry's stature as a World Cup and Champions League winner clearly also has the potential to add confidence to a "golden generation" who, having slightly disappointed at their past two tournaments, are facing perhaps the greatest opportunity of their careers.

With Martinez having brought with him the English coach Graeme Jones as his "first" assistant, there was sound logic in adding a personality who would offer that missing experience of having played on the greatest stages.

"He brought something we didn't have," said Martinez. "We didn't have international experience, the know-how of winning a World Cup and being expected to perform in the highest moment. Thierry Henry brings that. He has been the perfect missing piece."

The seeds for Henry's appointment were sown in the recruitment process when one of the leading candidates, Ralf Rangnick, revealed that Arsenal's record scorer was interested in becoming involved.

The suggestion was relayed to Martinez and, with Belgium happier than Arsenal for Henry to continue his lucrative punditry work with Sky Sports, a deal was struck.

It suits all sides. For Henry, it is all about gathering experience ahead of presumably striking out in management himself. There is, though, a twist.

While Martinez is signed up until Euro 2020, Henry's Belgium contract does not extend beyond this World Cup, so there is the possibility that France might just end this unlikely marriage tonight. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

Belgium v France,

Live, RTE 2 and BBC One, 7.0

Telegraph.co.uk

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