James Lawton: Henry owes Arsenal one defining flash of genius to drag them back to their feet

For Henry and his Arsenal colleagues it is at the very least gesture time
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The Independent Football

Imagine you are a kid who supports Arsenal at the Bernabeu tonight and you encounter Thierry Henry as he prepares to go out against Real. Otherwise unrecognised, his collar pulled up against the cold wind coming down from the Guadarrama, he has that brooding expression that he does so well, and which sometimes you suspect he may have borrowed from an old movie of Yves Montand. What do you say to him? Perhaps you say, "Thierry, this could be the last big game, really big game, you play for Arsenal - make it something, Thierry, make it something that we can both remember."

And maybe Henry might pout a little and reply, "That's all very well, my young friend, but you are being romantic. Football is a little more complicated, you know. Will I even sniff a ball that enables me to do what I do best?" Given some recent Arsenal performances, there wouldn't be much of an answer to that, but the kid's point would still be well made.

Maybe it is true that Henry is serving out his time. Perhaps it is right that the old flame at Highbury has burnt down so low that it is beyond the redemption of single acts of genius. But that doesn't mean that Henry shouldn't do something that has been singularly lacking in his game in the season of Arsenal's shocking decline. It doesn't mean that he shouldn't give the appearance of playing out of his skin because his team need, as desperately as some fibre in a midfield made feeble by the departure of Patrick Vieira, and fit defenders who have retained their nerve, some significant, even overt show of commitment.

This, we know, is not Henry's style, but he was a spiritual leader of Arsenal so long in his effect, if not his manner. Who expressed best Arsenal's belief in their innate superiority? Who did things which carried the team on to a different dimension? That was always Henry. Vieira drove Arsenal on. Robert Pires produced exquisite grace notes, as did Dennis Bergkamp. But Henry ultimately defined the meaning of the team.

Yes, probably, it is too late to hope for such grandeur of performance, and going to the Bernabeu with such a ramshackle away record is no grounds for any serious confidence. But then Arsenal haven't become duds overnight. It's true Pires seems as though he may be caught in the last round-up of his brilliance, and Freddy Ljungberg is just a shadow of the old, biting Nordic raider, but what reserves of pride are retained by the team built so superbly by Arsène Wenger surely have to be thoroughly explored tonight. Liverpool, astonishingly, won the Champions' League last season with a half-formed team which had been routinely thrashed at places like Southampton and Newcastle. Is this really beyond the dreams of the residue of the team which went unbeaten for 49 games up until just 16 months ago, who had persuaded some - a little bizarrely, it is true - that they were the greatest force ever assembled in English club football?

Probably, but for Henry and his team-mates it is at the very least gesture time. Despite acres of newsprint devoted already this week to the hubris of football's greatest shirt salesman, Real Madrid do not represent so much when you think about it. Said David Beckham, "Barcelona are an impressive team. Players like Ronaldinho and Messi are impressive players. But right now Real Madrid are playing such great football that I can say we are a notch ahead of Barcelona." A notch ahead? Barcelona are still seven points clear of Real in La Liga and with the return of Ronaldinho they are luminous again, with Lionel Messi and Samuel Eto'o the most acute and willing of acolytes, something they will be eager to impress upon Jose Mourinho if they are able to lift their thoroughbred heels out of the Stamford Bridge mud tomorrow night.

Real were knocked out of the King's Cup the other night amid great lamentations because they failed by just one goal to fight back from a 6-1 defeat. We are not exactly talking about the Rock of Gibraltar here, but a collection of g alacticos currently twinkling somewhat, and certainly it is no challenge recalling how thoroughly they were dissected when Barça paid their last visit to the Bernabeu.

No doubt Arsenal are brittle. No doubt all available evidence says they will be up against it tonight. But they have a certain duty to themselves and their supporters, and perhaps Henry, because of who he is and what he represents, most of all.

The worst case scenario for all those who admire the beauty of his play is that he runs out the string at Highbury before some celebrity posting, perhaps to Barcelona, but where they would fit him into their current galaxy is quite another matter. If the departure of Henry happens, inevitably there will be certain key points of memory. One is of him so luminous, when he scored his hat-trick in the Olympic stadium in Rome, and there are all those other times when the speed and the elegance of his play made poetry of the game.

There is another recall and it is one that will be helpful to his reputation if, as some believe is nearly certain, he does indeed drift away at the end of the season. It is of Arsenal's last exit from the Champions' League, when Michael Ballack struck some imperious form and Bayern Munich marched forward with some ease at Highbury. Henry scored a wonderful goal and played to what looked extremely close to his limits. He did not go quietly into that distinctly unpromising night.

Such, you have to hope, will be his demeanour in the Bernabeu tonight. When all else is lost, good teams and great players have one last obligation. It is to fight. Or, as a heroine of the Spanish Civil War, once said, "It is better to die on your feet than live on your knees."

Pearce's performance-related approach the antidote to player power

One of the reasons to hope for a strong, media-proofed new manager of England football's team is that it might diminish the sense that David Beckham's celebrity status affords him quite ridiculous influence over team affairs.

Here is Beckham on the captaincy he has retained under Sven Goran Eriksson through every pratfall and trough of diabolical form in major tournaments: "I love playing for England and, of course, I want to stay as captain. The new man will pick the new captain but I don't want to give it up easily... I'm not going to give it up easily."

If Guus Hiddink, plainly the outstanding candidate, got the job, we can guess such self-serving gibberish would go sailing straight out of the window. Unfortunately, Hiddink's chances now look remote, but then the front-runner Martin O'Neill would not be expected to be so easily influenced by the celebrity business.

Nor would the increasingly interesting outsider Stuart Pearce. One of his greatest assets is that, like O'Neill, he worked under the unique Brian Clough. That showed clearly in the draw achieved by his Manchester City in the last seconds of the FA Cup tie at Aston Villa on Sunday.

City, despite utterly dominating the game, and missing a series of glorious opportunities, fell behind, but they never lost their determination to fight on. Pearce was all quiet eloquence after the match. He deplored some aspects of his team's performance, but he was proud of their attitude and spirit.

He is tough and he is a winner and, as an international player, his dedication to the idea of winning became legendary. Now he looks like one of the last football men in the world who might be influenced by the sweet talk of a galactico.

Clearly, there is only way to persuade him. It is by performance.

Ford stays cool amid winter fever

Anna Ford, still the goddess of the television newscast, has at times such a beautifully subtle delivery you can never be quite sure, but she may have made the most withering comment of all on some of the more outrageous hype washing over us from the Winter Olympics.

It was after a rapturous account from Turin of the splendid Chemmy Alcott's fine descent in the downhill.

Alcott skied with courage and skill, no doubt, but you might have been excused for thinking she had produced more than that but for the reluctant admission that in the final placings our heroine was 11th.

Back in London, Ms Ford smiled, a little thinly, and summed up with one word: "Breathtaking."

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