Aston Villa 0 Asenal 0: Henry's chagrin leaves old boy O'Leary fearing Arsenal face 'double whammy'

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The Independent Football

After two decades in which he wore the gun on his chest a thousand times at all levels, David O'Leary understands what makes the heart of Arsenal beat at its strongest.

Which is why the Aston Villa manager views the need to resolve Thierry Henry's future as crucial to his first club as they enter the year when they will vacate Highbury.

O'Leary, who salutes Arsène Wenger for raising Arsenal from the level of his own playing days, argues that the new stadium will put them on a par with Real Madrid, Juventus and Milan in terms of attendances and revenue.

That will provide the spending power to build a team "to replace the one that's just come to an end", but the key, maintains the Irishman, is to prevent Henry following Patrick Vieira out of the marble halls.

"The big issue for them would be losing Henry, because with Dennis Bergkamp, one of the Arsenal greats, coming to the end of his career, that would be a double whammy," O'Leary said. "It would be hard to replace Henry, yet you're hearing about Barcelona and Juventus, and wondering whether his mate Vieira is telling him what life is like in Italy.

"I have many friends who are Arsenal season ticket holders and that's the one they are asking about. They're looking forward to the new ground - and to Henry being there. The lift of moving should help to keep him, by bringing in new players to excite him and by giving him a shed-load of money. But I don't know if he will stay, and I bet if you asked Arsène, deep down he won't know himself."

Judging by Villa Park's final fixture of 2005 - a snapshot, admittedly - Henry's mood does not augur well for Arsenal's prospects of keeping him. After kicking fresh air with a languid swing of a boot, his shoulders sagged and he held out gloved hands as if to ask what was going on. Even great strikers need service, however, and the loss of Vieira continues to leave Wenger's central midfield looking lightweight. Mathieu Flamini and Cesc Fabregas lacked the presence, power and know-how to impose themselves on Gavin McCann and Eirik Bakke as Vieira, in tandem with Edu, Emmanuel Petit or Gilberto Silva, would surely have done.

McCann, a £2.25m snip from Sunderland with a solitary England cap, was able to dominate the first half in a manner that would not previously have been possible. His robust approach prompted Freddie Ljungberg to state pointedly, without naming Flamini and Fabregas, that young players have to learn to be both technical and physical in today's Premiership.

Arsenal improved after half-time, Ljungberg twanging the bar and Kolo Touré miscuing with the goal at his mercy late on. But Villa, showing that they had learnt from the timid pre-Christmas display against Manchester United, could have been in command by that stage had Milan Baros been less wasteful in front of goal.

O'Leary now takes his team to West Bromwich Albion for today's derby, the last in a sequence of four matches in eight days that is the sporting equivalent of a dance marathon.

A run of one defeat in eight means confidence is high, but with fatigue and stiffness becoming factors and his bench "down to the bare bones", he added: "I wouldn't like to have to dig myself out of a hole [at the Hawthorns] with 15 minutes left."

Arsenal have an extra 30 hours to rest and prepare for United's visit tomorrow. The contest will have a bearing on whether, after a World Cup summer, one of the clubs might have to return early to prepare for Champions' League qualifiers.

Their last League collision at Highbury will also be the first since Vieira and Roy Keane departed the respective camps.

Ljungberg was asked what difference their absence would make. "Maybe," he said, breaking into a smile, "it will be a little calmer."

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