James Lawton: Henry's conscience clear as he ponders final dangerous night in Arsenal colours

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The Independent Football

Half a century or so ago there was a summer in Spain when two great matadors, Antonio Ordonez and Luis Dominguin, fought mano a mano, hand to hand, with a simple, thrilling imperative. It was to prove who was better, who had the more sublime talent and the hardest competitive nerve.

Football has taken its time but here tonight at the Stade de France it has produced the most compelling equivalent of what the Spanish called the Dangerous Summer: Ronaldinho versus Thierry Henry may be as brief as 90 minutes, but no one doubts that compressed into it will be the yearnings and ambition of two brilliant young lifetimes.

There will no blaring trumpets or blood on the sand, but there will be that old glorious, mesmerising edge: the world's most féted player, the man who is already in the pantheon of Brazilian world champions and who has entranced modern Spain just as the duelling bullfighters did all those years ago, and his one serious rival.

Not a dangerous summer then, but potentially a night of football nights as Ronaldinho and Henry seek to push beyond already glittering horizons. If Arsenal versus Barcelona is the connoisseur's European Cup final, the match that might just anoint the game of the 21st century with a quality and a style to set the perfect tone for the coming World Cup, Ronaldinho and Henry are not so much the central characters as the huge collective heartbeat. One miss, one blink, and the whole game could be over.

With respect to so many other formidable performers, steely old pros like Carles Puyol and Jens Lehmann, precocious boys like Lionel Messi and Cesc Fabregas, it is Henry and Ronaldinho alone who define the highest possibilities of the great match... and provide still another dimension. It is one of football morality, of performing to the full height of their awesome abilities more consistently than any rivals of comparable gifts.

In practical terms it may be that Henry returns to his native terrain for what seems almost certain to be his last game for Arsenal having already applied his elegant signature to the extraordinary tale of football excellence he has written into the soil of England. That could well have happened at Highbury a week or so ago when he scored a hat-trick that seemed to distil all of his ravishing talent.

But that passing drama will be worth no more than a sigh of remembrance tonight when he aches to say an au revoir emblazoned in the heavens of the game he has seduced and dazzled since he first arrived in England as a flying but far from finished young player on the fringe of France's World Cup-winning team.

Deep down Arsenal supporters know that any personal agonising is over... Henry is making a farewell charged with both huge ambition and deep emotion. Though it was hardly required of him, at least to the degree of a hat-trick of trade-marked vision and facility, the Frenchman was underlining in that last match at the old ground a point he had been making with overwhelming legitimacy in all the months of speculation about his future intentions.

Thierry's theory, which he has imposed with so many grace notes and - most of the time - a deeply impressive underlying passion, has been that whatever his decision, whether he chose to stay for the next phase of Arsenal's history at the Emirates Stadium or embark on a new adventure with Barcelona, it was one that he could make with a light heart and the clearest of conscience. This is his right of conquest and achievement, and he knows it as well as anyone when he announces that he has discharged all debts to Arsenal, their fans, and even his mentor, Arsène Wenger.

Some may see a degree of arrogance in his position. But it is not hard to say that they are wrong. If there is a fine line between overweening self-belief and soundly based confidence, Henry undoubtedly has walked it with mostly unerring judgement. Wenger, with great style and feeling for a man who can be as absorbed with his own interests as deeply as any other denizen of the football jungle, has already acknowledged the truth of this with his declaration that Henry's deliberations should not be invaded by spurious demands on a loyalty that has been impeccably maintained to the last dot of his contract.

This is to Wenger's credit and Henry's glory. In an age when the value of contracts can wither at the first hint of agent manipulation, when even a relationship of such ferocious effectiveness as that between Sir Alex Ferguson and Ruud van Nistelrooy can dwindle on the suspicion of lagging commitment, Henry has proclaimed, with performance upon performance, that there is at least one player of the highest possible class who is beyond material distraction.

Yes, of course Thierry Henry has taken his rewards. Yes, of course he has arrived at a negotiating position of perhaps unprecedented strength... at least until Ronaldinho again becomes a free agent. But as Henry says coolly, he has done his job, he has delivered all of his talent to the cause of Arsenal.

Haughty? No doubt. Imperious? There have been times when he has rivalled any conquering Caesar. But few players of the modern age have stayed the course quite like Thierry Henry, and certainly not his extravagantly gifted compatriots, Nicolas Anelka and Patrick Vieira.

Opportunism made a parody, and ultimately destroyed, a career that could have been one of the great ones before Anelka's head was first turned by the rustle of money. Vieira was both a bulwark and a driving force of Wenger's Arsenal, but he, too, was caught in the crossfire of mixed priorities. Unquestionably, he was a less of a player after Real Madrid came calling with the devastating mixed message that they valued him as a superior infantryman rather than a galactico, and made an offer to match that assessment.

Henry has simply sped to the intoxicating rhythm of his own instincts. When he arrived at Highbury he brought coltish speed and no intimations of greatness. Within a season, he was becoming a revelation of the finest judgement, almost mystically controlled pace and lacerating skill. The rest has been mostly seamless brilliance, albeit with occasional worries that his resolve might sometimes be in question in matches of maximum pressure. Even this nag, though, has been put away on Arsenal's march to tonight's game in Paris.

The result is that Henry can luxuriate in honourable options. He can be seen as the man who has outrun the last of the restraints imposed upon his trade.

He can only shake his head that someone like Sir Tom Finney was dismissed with contempt by directors of Preston North End when he expressed interest in an offer from Italian football that would have transformed his life. Kevin Keegan provoked astonishment, and much admiration, from his co-workers when he insisted on leaving a personal fortress at Liverpool for the uncertain horizons of a new career in Europe. But then many fans considered his action shocking.

Henry's achievement has been to cut through such lingering traces of the days when footballers had less rights than the average tradesman, and surely he is beyond any of it tonight.

No doubt Ronaldinho, on top of his magnificent ball skill, is physically stronger, a fact he underlined when he brushed aside a Chelsea defence that prides itself on both its tactical acumen and its physical force. However, there is no doubt that the Brazilian is hampered by the tendency of his Barça coach, Frank Rijkaard, to play him on the left, where at times he can be strangely isolated.

Henry, of course, is given Arsenal's central highway. He would expect nothing less, and especially against a Barcelona defence whose liking for a "high line" of defence - it used to be known as the offside trap - carried them into dangerous ground against Milan in the semi-finals.

No man on earth is better equipped to exploit that folly than Thierry Henry. However he shapes his farewell, it is not the least poignant truth for the club he has served so well.