Sam Wallace: Henry forced to bridge Arsenal's generation gap

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There was a line through Ashley Cole's name on the list of those travelling from Luton Airport yesterday and, alongside that, the Italian striker Arturo Lupoli had been written in as a late replacement. It has been the story of Arsenal's season so far: youth instead of experience, the dwindling influence of senior players and the struggle of those from the next generation to bridge the gap - apart from, that is, in the case of one man.

If Thierry Henry is as good as his word then tonight at the Bernabeu stadium will be as close as he ever comes to experiencing the Real Madrid galactico status, a status his talent so richly deserves and his loyalty to Arsenal prevents him from assuming. Queuing for the handshakes before kick-offhe will recognise a collection of men among whom he so clearly belongs, individuals considered equal to the most gifted footballer in the Premiership. The sadness for Henry is that most of them will be wearing white rather than Arsenal's yellow away kit.

At 28, and facing one of the most momentous matches of his glittering career, it will be little consolation to Henry that Arsène Wenger said yesterday he has never gone into a game as Arsenal manager as quite such an unfancied underdog.

"When you say that nobody believes we have a chance, you are exaggerating because I believe we have a big chance, but we've never gone into a game quite like this," he said. "We are rarely given no chance at all in a game like this." The Arsenal manager said it with a flicker of a grin because he believes fervently in his next generation of players for whom tonight's game, he said, was "worth six months of training".

But for Arsenal's No 14, there is no time to wait as his years of pre-eminence tick by in a team that is fifth in the Premiership, has lost three out of their last five matches and encounters one of the most formidable attacking forces in world football tonight with just Kolo Touré fit from their first-choice back four.

The expectation none the less will be that Henry's influence is significant enough alone to give Arsenal a chance in the Bernabeu and Wenger counted himself among the hopefuls when he agreed yesterday that "we need a big Thierry Henry, that's for sure."

Wenger also had an answer for those who have suggested that Henry is at his most effective against opposition of much lower status than the team he will face tonight.

"Thierry has a remarkable record in the Champions' League. If you look at the top goalscorers he is [in] the top three [behind Raul and Ruud van Nistelrooy] of all time so that denies that theory," he said. "The problem is that the expectation on Henry is so high that sometimes it does make a difference and people come to a conclusion [that he is not playing well] if he doesn't make a difference."

Everything in Arsenal's season, tonight against Real Madrid - next week against Blackburn Rovers - eventually comes back to the essential matter of whether Henry will sign the contract that he promised in January and commit his future to the club for the rest of his career. Given the struggle that Arsenal have made of the Premiership, tonight's game comes heavy with symbolism in the struggle to convince their captain he has made the right choice.

"I believe that Thierry wants to commit himself to the club for a longer period and we do want to spend that longer period in the Champions' League," Wenger said. "It's very important for us to be in the Champions' League. You could say first and foremost it's important financially but you also know that your big players want to play in the Champions' League. It's also part of the improvement of the young players to be confronted with the best.

"I am confident we will do it. I am not worrying about not qualifying at the moment because we have a massive game in front of us and we need to show how good we are. I am convinced that for us to do well for the rest of the season we need to do well [against Real]. We have been swimming against the stream a little bit all year. No matter what we have done there have been negative vibes."

For those who find Real's decadent recruitment policy distasteful, who believe their emasculation of the manager and lack of faith in the development of young home-grown talent, an Arsenal victory would be a sweet antidote to the excesses of the Bernabeu. Especially from Wenger who stands for the opposite: for success in spite of a relative lack of transfer funds, on the strength of his judgement to shape the club as manager and a total belief in the power of young players to rise to the occasion.

Theo Walcott may not count as home-grown but Wenger's conviction that the £12m 16-year-old would be ready if called upon was absolute, as is his belief in other young men such as Emmanuel Eboué, 22, and Mathieu Flamini, 21. "I'm not scared to put Walcott in the team if it's needed," Wenger said. "I don't think he'll start but I have not taken him just to please him. I have taken him because I believe he could play on this stage."

Real Madrid have won their last six games in La Liga and, apart from the 6-1 first leg Spanish Cup defeat to Real Zaragoza, are playing as well under new manager Juan Ramon Lopez Caro as they have under any of the six managers that have figured in David Beckham's two and half years here. Wenger is likely to opt for a five-man midfield, with Jose Antonio Reyes on the right wing and Freddie Ljungberg joining Gilberto Silva and Cesc Fabregas in the centre of midfield.

Eight of Wenger's first-team squad are missing - all injured apart from the cup-tied Emmanuel Adebayor - and no one would blame them for adopting the cautious approach that served them so well in the FA Cup final last season. It does, however, mean that Henry faces another night alone in attack with just his own brilliance to rely upon.

In other words, another night of sacrifice to Arsenal's cause - although once again it will be Henry's team-mates who will be called upon to prove they are still worthy of having their captain among them.