The king is back: Thierry Henry scores on Arsenal return against Leeds
Fa Cup third round: Arsenal 1 Leeds United 0
It took him just 10 minutes. The stage was irrefutably set, the script had been perfectly written. All Thierry Henry had to do was provide the coup de grace, and he certainly did just that.
Two months short of five years since his last appearance in an Arsenal shirt, Henry entered the fray with little over 20 minutes remaining as a replacement for Marouane Chamakh.
Arsenal had been toothless, wasteful, utterly wretched on the night. The game was dull, lifeless, going nowhere. Then a man who had scored 226 goals in 370 games in his previous stint at the club returned, and all was suddenly well with the world again.
He had looked a little tentative when he first came on, was offside in his first meaningful moment, hussled off the ball in his second.
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But when Alex Song slipped him a precise ball inside the Leeds right-back channel, Henry peeled off the last defender, took a touch and then with the inside of his right foot curled a simple finish around the Leeds keeper Andy Lonergan. Of course he did.
It was as if the intervening years had melted away in an instant. Suddenly there he was, beating his chest, running to the crowd in celebration, it could have been the 2002 Double season again, or the 2004 Invincibles season, or just any time in that golden period when Arsenal used to win trophies for fun, and Henry used to score for fun. Va Va Voom, it was back with a vengeance.
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Henry almost didn’t know where to run. He pointed up to the executive boxes, to the crowd, he ran to the bench and embraced Arsene Wenger. What a moment for him, for both of them, for everybody in the stadium who loves a fairytale, and got their perfect ending.
How Arsenal had needed him. The game was ebbing towards an unwanted replay and Leeds were holding the Gunners at bay quite comfortably at the time.
Wenger had made some surprises in his selection, with Mikel Arteta handed the captain’s armband, and also starting the rest of his first-choice midfield in Song and Aaron Ramsey.
Andrey Arshavin and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain occupied the wide positions, while Chamakh was granted one final chance to impress before heading off to the Africa Cup of Nations with Morocco.
It was only at the back where the Gunners looked under-strength, with Francis Coquelin and Ignasi Miquel asked to occupy the full-back berths while Sebastien Squillaci was also given a rare start alongside Laurent Koscielny in the centre of defence.
The Championship side were also without key men such as Jon Howson, Rob Snodgrass and Patrick Kisnorbo, however, and were under pressure right from the start.
Arshavin blazed a good chance over after being put in by Chamakh, Aaron Ramsey saw an effort blocked and Squillaci sent a header the wrong side of the post all in the opening 20 minutes.
Oxlade-Chamberlain was also looking in spritely mood, but from one of his forward raids Coquelin, overlapping on the right flank, collapsed with what looked like a pulled hamstring and had to be replaced by the 18-year-old Nico Yennaris.
The curse of Arsenal’s full-backs continues, with the injury toll now standing at six, and none of them are likely to return at Swansea on Sunday. Johan Djourou, at least, will be available after suspension.
Those were worries for another time though. Arsenal were looking entirely unconvincing in their pursuit of a fourth round home tie against Aston Villa as half-time approached.
Leeds were finding it worryingly easy to contain Arsenal too, with only a booking for the on-loan Celtic defender Darren O’Dea blotting their copybook in a sturdy first-half defensive performance.
There was even some booing ringing around the Emirates at half-time, but perhaps that was just because Henry had not even moved from his seat on the substitutes bench, and had spent most of the first half in earnest conversation with Theo Walcott.
That changed early in the second half when the Frenchman emerged on the touchline and trotted down towards the corner flag, his every step cheered to the rafters by an expectant crowd.
The Gunners should have taken the lead shortly afterwards, when Zac Thompson’s stray pass allowed Miquel to feed Arshavin, but with time and space to control, the little Russian tried the spectacular and blasted wastefully wide.
Oxlade-Chamberlain, easily Arsenal’s most impressive player, saw one effort fly narrowly wide and another blocked by Leeds keeper Lonergan as the pressure grew, but the breakthrough didn’t materialise.
Henry, however, did. With 25 minutes to go he was stripped and ready to come on alongside Theo Walcott, but had to wait an agonising extra three minutes for his eagerly-awaited return.
But then he was on, and within minutes he had done what he always used to do, and won a game for Arsenal.
Song’s pass was precise, perfect really, but how composed Henry was in stroking the ball home. It was like he had never been away.
The game was not done then and Wojciech Szczesny had to be alert to make a couple of late saves but it was as if nobody wanted to ruin the script, and why should they?
At the end he held his arms aloft and expressed his joy to the heavens. The Thierry Henry show is back on the road, 227 goals and counting. The next instalment will be at Swansea on Sunday.
Don’t bet against it happening again. The king is back.
Arsenal: Szczesny, Koscielny, Miquel, Squillaci, Coquelin (Yennaris, 30), Arteta, Song, Ramsey, Oxlade-Chamberlain (Walcott, 68), Chamakh (Henry, 68), Arshavin.
Subs not used: Martinez, Park, Benayoun, Miyaichi.
Leeds: Lonergan, Thompson, Lees, O’Dea, White, Townsend, Pugh, Nunez, Clayton, Becchio (McCormack, 75), Vayrynen (Brown, 62).
Subs not used: Taylor, Bruce, Sam, Forssell, Parker.