Arsenal facing loss of Henry as Barcelona step up pursuit

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The Independent Football

Arsenal have received the clearest indication yet that they will start next season without Thierry Henry after the Barcelona president, Joan Laporta, confirmed that the striker will be the cornerstone of his campaign to be re-elected as the head of the Catalan club.

Barça are confident that the Arsenal striker will join next summer - and crucially he appears to have reconciled himself to leaving.

At a fans' forum in Barcelona on Monday evening Laporta said: "We will do all we can to sign Henry," in response to a question from the floor. Laporta had gone straight to the meeting after arriving back on a private jet from Zurich where Ronaldinho was named World Player of the Year.

Laporta was capitalising on the euphoria surrounding the Brazilian's award and will now step up his campaign to secure Henry.

That will accelerate the search for his replacement and Arsenal will be aware of Fernando Torres' growing concern at the poor season that Atletico Madrid are having. Despite the 21-year-old's love of the club he may, finally, be willing to move. However there is a €90m (£61m) buy-out clause in his contract, which expires in 2008. Arsenal would not be expected to pay that but Atletico will want a record fee for their captain.

Other possible targets are Feyenoord's Dirk Kuyt - who has also interested Tottenham Hotspur and Chelsea and wants to move to London - and Monaco's Emmanuel Adebayor who West Ham tried to sign.

It is believed that Henry would have left Arsenal earlier had Laporta, who met with Arsenal vice-chairman David Dein last June, not balked at the £30m transfer fee which was demanded. Instead, Barça will now hope to pay less than half that price because the 27-year-old, who has stalled on signing a new deal at Highbury, despite initially suggesting that negotiations would be completed, has a contract that runs out in 2007.

Henry has also been told by friends and advisers that he has done all he can for Arsenal and that the time is right, after joining in 1999, for him to leave.

They also believe that Barcelona, rather than Real Madrid, Chelsea - who would love to sign him - or a move back to Italy would suit him best. The Frenchman has been dismayed by the departure of Patrick Vieira and the club's perceived lack of ambition.

Ludovic Giuly, the Barcelona winger and a fellow French international, has claimed that Henry told him that "if he leaves Arsenal the club he will join is Barcelona", while there will now be an increase in the public wooing involving Laporta, Ronaldinho and the coach, Frank Rijkaard.

Henry is sensitive to the reaction of Arsenal's fans and also feels he owes a debt to Wenger, and that has weighed heavily in his deliberations so it cannot be ruled out that he will have a change of heart. He is likely to be joined in Spain by Ashley Cole who appears certain to leave for Real Madrid after the World Cup - and for a fee of little more than £10m. The left-back is still privately seething over his treatment by Arsenal, and Dein in particular, following the tapping-up incident involving Chelsea.

Wenger is well aware of the scenario he is facing and with Robert Pires unlikely to be offered a new deal and Dennis Bergkamp leaving next summer he is facing a major rebuilding job despite his unshakeable faith in his young squad.

Wenger recognises that more experience is needed, especially in the crucial 24- to 28-year-old age group of players, but he is resisting pressure, which has grown following Sunday's defeat to Chelsea, to bring in more than one or two players in the January transfer window. Wenger has told the Arsenal board that he would prefer to wait until after the World Cup for more recruits.

There are also growing fears that, with the club set to move into its new £357m Emirates Stadium next summer, it may do so without the prospect of Champions' League football which would undoubtedly affect its finances.

The Portuguese central defender Mario Caneira has been offered to Arsenal on loan from Valencia for the rest of the season while the agent of the Borussia Dortmund midfielder Tomas Rosicky is also hoping to interest Wenger. Pavel Paska said that he wants to talk to Wenger in the next week about the Czech international who is set to be replaced at the German club by Ajax's Steven Pienaar.

Arsenal have also been linked with a move for St-Etienne's Didier Zokora. The Ivory Coast midfielder is an enforcer in the mould that Wenger's team has lacked since Vieira's departure. But he would not come cheaply and Arsenal may find themselves in an unwanted bidding war with Manchester United.

Arsenal will also have been alerted by Jussi Jaaskelainen's decision to stall on signing a new contract at Bolton Wanderers despite agreeing terms last summer. "It has now been decided we will talk again at the end of the season," said his agent Peter Harrison who knows there is interest in the 30-year-old.

Forwards to fill Henry's boots?

DIRK KUYT

The 25-year-old Dutch international and Feyenoord striker has been strongly linked with a move to the Premiership over the past few months. An old-fashioned English-style centre-forward, Kuyt has powered his way to 53 goals in two seasons. Would cost around £12m.

FERNANDO TORRES

Spain international and captain of Atletico Madrid, the 21-year-old has made 99 league appearances since signing in 2002, scoring 48 goals. The new superstar of Spanish football causes problems with his sheer pace and aerial presence.

EMMANUEL ADEBAYOR

The 21-year-old, who plays for Monaco, scored 11 goals as he helped Togo to reach next summer's World Cup finals. He has scored four goals in the French top flight this season and has been linked with West Ham. Basketball player's physique and great pace.

THEO WALCOTT

The lightning-quick Southampton 16-year-old has taken the Championship by storm since making his debut earlier this season and has scored four goals in 10 starts. Has already been linked with £9m moves to Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspur.

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