Champions League: Henry - the homecoming

Arsenal's 'greatest' returns tonight – but this season at Barça, the problems he suffered at the Emirates have returned

Thierry Henry was asked this week what the 3,000 or so Barcelona fans in London today should go and see before they go home. "Well I would say Highbury, but they knocked it down and built apartment blocks", came back the bittersweet reply.

Ever since the Champions League draw matched Arsenal with the holders, the Catalan press have spoken of a nostalgic Henry preparing to "go home". Except it isn't quite home. It is the Emirates, and as Henry plays out what looks like being a disappointing last season at Barcelona, there are parallels with his last campaign for Arsenal on the very same ground.

It was at Highbury where Henry played himself into the record books and into the hearts of the fans who voted him the greatest player in the club's history. In contrast the enduring image of the Emirates Henry during his final season with Arsenal – 2006-07 – is of a frustrated forward down on his knees banging the newly-laid turf after not receiving a pass from Cesc Fabregas or an uncomfortable captain counting down the days to his inevitable departure to Barcelona.

Even his most adoring Arsenal fans would perhaps admit Henry stayed one season too many, and Barcelona supporters now believe history might be repeating itself at the Nou Camp.

After last year's renaissance helped the side to a grand slam of trophies and allowed Henry to cross off the last remaining trophy on his CV by winning the Champions League, this year's campaign has so far been flat.

In 2008-09 he hit 18 goals including two memorable strikes in a superb performance at the Bernabeu as Barça beat Real Madrid 6-2 at the end of the season. This time he has scored just three goals in 14 starts. He was taken off at half time a week ago in Barcelona's 2-0 home victory over Osasuna and at the weekend he was on the plane to Mallorca but then left to watch Barça's 1-0 win from the stand despite being fully fit.

Tonight he is expected to start, with coach Pep Guardiola calling on his experience and the added motivation of performing in England again to help his side establish a first-leg lead in the Champions League quarter-final.

But when Henry talks of tonight's game he speaks of playing out of a duty to the Barça fans who dream of contesting the 22 May final at the Bernabeu, the home of Real, their great rivals, more than of a desire to show what he is still capable of. As if he thinks the memory of 226 goals in eight seasons with Arsenal is best left as it is without any need for a postscript.

"It is like Xavi leaving Barcelona and then having to go back one day to play against his old club," he said. "You are prepared but it is a strange feeling. If I'm picked of course I will give everything. We are playing a Champions League quarter-final and I know that for Barça fans it is very important to reach the final this year and if possible to win it. For them it is a dream to reach Madrid but for me it is strange to have to cross with Arsenal on the way."

The comparison with Xavi who started at Barcelona as a 13-year-old might be exaggerated but it illustrates the "one-man club" feeling Henry has despite his years at Monaco, a brief spell with Juventus and his time at Barça. "When you play in a team and you give everything, the people pay you back for all the effort you have put in," he says of being named Arsenal's greatest ever player.

"I had a special relationship with the Arsenal fans. That honour was like another trophy for me. A trophy from the heart. They are incredible supporters. They always help you and the team, and at Highbury the atmosphere was superb."

"He is a player who still has Arsenal in his heart," his Barcelona manager, Pep Guardiola, said last night. "He is the best player who has ever played for Arsenal, he scored more than 200 goals, it's amazing. He is a huge part of the history of this club."

Henry speaks of Arsenal's "Invincible season" – 2003-04 – with more passion than he has ever spoken of last season's league, cup and Champions League treble with Barcelona. "In today's football playing against Chelsea, Manchester United and Liverpool and all those games away from home that are difficult to win, it is almost impossible to go unbeaten and yet we achieved it. That will always stay in the history books, but losing the Champions League final was very hard to take."

Losing that final in 2006 to, ironically, Barcelona, was perhaps the key to Henry's original U-turn on a deal to join Barça that had been set up with the club's financial president at the time, Ferran Soriano. He was informed while the two teams were still in Paris that Henry would not be coming after all. Even Arsène Wenger was surprised.

Henry felt he could not walk out on the club after losing in such a way. The debt to the supporters and to Wenger was perhaps too great. "I started with Wenger. He gave me my debut when I was just 17, and after that we met again in London," he remembered this week. "He had a lot of confidence in me and I have a very special relationship with him. He has done a lot for me. Without him I don't know what would have happened to me.

"Wenger changed the way Arsenal play. He has changed the lives of the fans. Before, they went to the games knowing that their team would win and nothing more, but right now Arsenal and Barcelona are the two teams who try to play football and for me that is so important. He has changed the way the team play but still won trophies. He will always be the best coach the club has ever had."

So this is the Gunners' greatest ever manager against their greatest ever player. Wenger will know not to take Henry's return this season of a paltry three goals too seriously. Some of this term's dip has been down to bad luck in front of goal and the emergence of young winger Pedro. He admitted to feeling off the pace after France's recent friendly defeat to Spain but said: "I am training well and feeling much better. I think you could see the improvement the other day against Valencia and Stuttgart."

Arsenal fans will just hope it is the Emirates form and not the old Highbury style that he has brought with him tonight. "Now I am an Arsenal follower and always will be," he said. If that's the way he plays this evening then that will suit his adoring supporters in north London just fine.

0.13 goals per game

Henry average this season. In 2008-09 his rate for Barcelona was 0.62.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100

Bleacher Report

Daily Quiz
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

The Arab Spring reversed

Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

Who is Oliver Bonas?

It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

60 years of Scalextric

Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones
Theme parks continue to draw in thrill-seekers despite the risks - so why are we so addicted?

Why are we addicted to theme parks?

Now that Banksy has unveiled his own dystopian version, Christopher Beanland considers the ups and downs of our endless quest for amusement
Tourism in Iran: The country will soon be opening up again after years of isolation

Iran is opening up again to tourists

After years of isolation, Iran is reopening its embassies abroad. Soon, there'll be the chance for the adventurous to holiday there
10 best PS4 games

10 best PS4 games

Can’t wait for the new round of blockbusters due out this autumn? We played through last year’s offering
Transfer window: Ten things we learnt

Ten things we learnt from the transfer window

Record-breaking spending shows FFP restraint no longer applies
Migrant crisis: UN official Philippe Douste-Blazy reveals the harrowing sights he encountered among refugees arriving on Lampedusa

‘Can we really just turn away?’

Dead bodies, men drowning, women miscarrying – a senior UN figure on the horrors he has witnessed among migrants arriving on Lampedusa, and urges politicians not to underestimate our caring nature
Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger as Isis ravages centuries of history

Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger...

... and not just because of Isis vandalism
Girl on a Plane: An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack

Girl on a Plane

An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack
Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

The author of 'The Day of the Jackal' has revealed he spied for MI6 while a foreign correspondent