Henry full of praise for 'special' opponents

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For the merely mortal majority among the players gathered for Euro 2004, to disagree publicly with the manager could be to invite conflict. Thierry Henry has not only taken the striking arts to a new level, as Michael Owen put it, but he is also blessed with an aura that allowed him to contradict Jacques Santini on the subject of Sunday's match between France and England with no offence intended or taken.

For the merely mortal majority among the players gathered for Euro 2004, to disagree publicly with the manager could be to invite conflict. Thierry Henry has not only taken the striking arts to a new level, as Michael Owen put it, but he is also blessed with an aura that allowed him to contradict Jacques Santini on the subject of Sunday's match between France and England with no offence intended or taken.

Santini, who must devise ways of stopping the great Arsenal attacker once he takes charge of neighbouring Tottenham, had just declared that the Group B opener in Lisbon would be an "emotional" affair because of the friendships between opponents who are club-mates. The France coach also understood that Arsenal and Chelsea players in the rival camps had kept in contact since arriving in Portugal.

Patrick Vieira had spoken to Sol Campbell, suggested Henry, though not about the match. "I haven't rung any of them," said the Premiership's leading scorer. "I like to talk after a game, not before it." This time he was contradicting himself. For it was apparent yesterday, as the France squad conducted interviews at their base in the picturesque textile town of Santo Tirso, 15-miles north of Oporto, that Henry actually relished the chance to chat.

This was Henry at his most relaxed; the laid-back antithesis of va-va voom. Whereas his Highbury ally Robert Pires was "too tired" to speak in English, he slipped as effortlessly between French and English, with a dash of Italian thrown in, as he does between bemused defenders from Newcastle to Southampton.

For Henry, the occasion would be "special", not emotional. "I play against my friends all the time in the Premiership, players like William Gallas, Mikaël Silvestre and Marcel Desailly," said Henry. "That's what a professional does. It will be the same on Sunday, although it will be special in the sense that I live in England and my wife is English."

According to the 26-year-old, Sven Goran Eriksson's side are contenders. "I respect England so much. I know more than anyone that they are capable of winning this championship. People go on about the golden generation of France and how we have developed players from 1998 to the current squad. But its not unique to France - it has happened in England as well.

"Go back to the era of Paul Gascoigne and Chris Waddle, talented players who went abroad. Now they have [Paul] Scholes, [David] Beckham, Ashley Cole, [Wayne] Rooney, [Steven] Gerrard and [Frank] Lampard. Just as the French generation renews itself, so has the English. And they play, always, with their hearts."

Henry did not include Owen on his list, despite thanking the Liverpool striker for his praise this week. Straddling a fine line between eulogy and criticism, he added: "I can't do some of the things that Owen can do. I can't be in the box all the time. I would die if I had to do that. I've got to move about and if that means dropping off to take the ball from the keeper, I'll do it. If I score and I haven't played well, I'm not happy or proud."

Lampard particularly impressed Henry during Chelsea's pursuit of Arsenal in the title race and their Champions' League meetings. "I voted for him as the PFA Player of the Year. It wasn't just that he played in virtually every game but how often he was absolutely outstanding. If I were picking the England team, I would find it hard to leave him out."

Rooney first entered Henry's radar two years ago when the teenager - whom he casually and mischievously suggested would not stay at Everton - curled a stunning winner beyond David Seaman to end one of Arsenal's unbeaten runs. "We knew he was special. That confirmed it. I've seen him do some strange challenges, but he doesn't care where or who he is playing. I like that.

"When you're young, you don't worry, and you can see that in Rooney's eyes. Sometimes you can be paralysed by fear, but he isn't. It's like when France and Italy went to a penalty shoot-out during the 1998 World Cup finals and the coach [Aimé Jacquet] asked me if I would take one. I said yes without even thinking. Now I'd still say yes but first would go 'Mmmmm'," he says, stroking his chin reflectively.

Henry did nominate one contemporary with a talent that he covets. "I've tried to do what he does and I can't do it,'' he admitted with a laugh of mock exasperation, making his audience wonder whether he was alluding to a variation on the Cruyff turn or a Maradona step-over. "He has this knack of the ball hitting his knee and going into the net. If he makes a run to the near post, the ball hits the bar and falls for him to put it in. People say it's luck but it happens too often for that to be true.''

Ominously for England, Henry identified the individual in question as David Trezeguet, France's foil to the forward who has (almost) everything.

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