Henry the second

He first made his name as an unstoppable goalscorer for Arsenal. Then came a £15m move to Barcelona and a season of failure. But after a slow start, Thierry Henry is looking regal again – just in time for the arrival of Real Madrid tonight. Pete Jenson reports
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The Independent Football

Thierry Henry's timing was always pretty good at Arsenal. The pass over the top, the linesman's flag down, the defenders flat-footed, the Frenchman clear, and the ball in the back of the net – one more toward the record-breaking 226 in 364 appearances.

Tonight the timing is not bad either. Real Madrid are in town. The walking wounded, nine points adrift in the league and struggling to find four fit defenders who might be able to deal with a player who fresh from last week's hat-trick against Valencia is on seven goals in eight starts.

Henry is starting to look a lot less like the striker Barcelona should never have bought, and a lot more like the one Arsène Wenger should never have sold.

Samuel Eto'o is back from suspension so the Frenchman will play on the left of Barcelona's three-pronged attack but that proved no problem to him last week.

He started wide with Lionel Messi through the middle but three times worked his way into centre-forward's territory to claim a hat-trick and some overdue Nou Camp adulation. There is still some convincing to do. Spoilt Barça fans are hard to please. It is a far cry from being applauded by opposition supporters in the Premier League. His return of 28 goals in all competitions since he signed is by no means shameful. But such was the euphoria when he first joined in the summer of 2007 that ever since that film-premiere style presentation it has been difficult not to fall short of the expectations.

In a television interview earlier this season he was asked what he had done the previous Sunday when Barcelona had not had a game. His night-off routine turned out to be: "invite some friends over, bake a bread pudding, and play Cluedo".

Barcelona fans were amused. Somehow the low-key lifestyle off the pitch summed up what had been an all-too low-key first 17 months on it.

When they filled one side of the Nou Camp to welcome the man who had put the voom into va va voom they never imagined it would all come down to Professor Plum in the library with the candlestick. For them it has been too much Clark Kent and not enough Superman.

But last week his name echoed around the Nou Camp for the first time since his presentation. If we hear the same tonight in the game that matters most to them, then one of the hardest crowds in football will have been cracked. It has been a long time coming.

"His adaptation is proving to be difficult," said former Barcelona player and coach Johan Cruyff last season. "It is not easy blending into a team that is malfunctioning. Only when the side starts playing well again will Henry be really influential."

Henry accepts that the eagerly anticipated first campaign was a write-off. "It's only natural that people were upset last season," he says. "The supporters should know that nobody goes home happy when we lose. I went home upset many times during the season."

One such night was against Villarreal when his old pal Robert Pires, playing for the opposition, waited to speak with his former team-mate only to find that, substituted during the second half, Henry had long left the stadium.

"He must have been very annoyed to have been taken off so soon. He was already on his way home when I went looking for him," said the French midfielder.

That was midway through the campaign. Worse was to come as Real Madrid claimed the title and then waved it around in front of Barcelona in an end-of-season 4-1 drubbing that included Barça players giving their rivals a guard of honour on to the pitch. Henry recalls: "I remember going to the Bernabeu in what was a very difficult moment. It was tough at the start and it was even tougher at the end, losing heavily. I survived it but I do not want to go through it again."

Heads rolled at the end of the season with coach Frank Rijkaard, and players Deco and Ronaldinho all leaving. Henry survived the cull and was promised centre-forward privileges by new manager Pep Guardiola, who declared publicly that the up-for-sale Eto'o was not in his plans.

Now, surely we would start to see the Henry of old. But Eto'o was never sold. On the opening day of the season Henry was once again played on the left and took a large chunk of the criticism as Barcelona lost to newly-promoted Numancia having wasted enough chances to win the game several times over.

Worse followed when Henry was dropped on the morning of the second game of the season at home to Racing Santander – not staying to watch his team-mates play out a disappointing 1-1 draw.

But Cruyff was proved right – as Barça improved so did Henry. The poor start behind them they clocked up nine straight wins averaging more than three goals a game and Henry played his part. Albeit a bit part, in the eyes of Barcelona supporters.

His situation was well summed up at the start of November when he smashed the sixth goal of the night into an empty net in a 6-0 defeat of Valladolid. Henry on the scoresheet but so what? It was Eto'o who had won the game scoring four in the first half. He was still missing HIS match ... until last week and that hat-trick in the Cameroon forward's absence.

Now for El Clasico and the possibility of opening the gap up on Real Madrid to 12 points, avenging that humiliating defeat at the Bernabeu last season, and arriving once and for all at the Barcelona top table.

Displaying some of the old Arsenal ruthlessness, he promises no mercy. "I will not be thinking that we are up against a wounded, weakened Madrid with a lot of injured players. Did anyone in Real Madrid last season think, 'poor Barça with Messi just back from injury and Ronaldinho having a difficult year?' Nobody cried for us that day. We won't cry for them."

Henry's stat: Thierry's vitals

226 goals: Henry scored 226 in 364 games for Arsenal, his 174 in the Premier League making him the Gunners' all-time top league scorer

£26.6 million: Total career fees paid for Henry.

4 seasons: Henry finished top scorer in the Premier League in 2001/02, 2003/04, 2004/05 and 2005/06.

48 goals: Henry is France's all-time leading scorer, with 48 goals in 107 games.

He says...

'People talk about me more than they talk about Eastenders' Henry

'Because of my seniority and my habit of screaming for the ball, they would sometimes give it to me even when I was not in the best position. So it was good for the team that I moved on' Henry

They say...

'He's one of the top strikers in the world. Everybody knows about him; better than talking about him is watching him' Arsène Wenger

'He was the best player in the world when he was here and he was definitely a guy you always knew would be there at the decisive moments' Cesc Fabregas