When Thierry Henry returned to Arsenal after missing France's midweek World Cup qualifier against Israel, he told Arsène Wenger that though he did not feel fully fit, he was ready to turn out against Norwich. Henry smelt goals. A dazzling hat-trick, his second in successive home matches, took his tally to 181 goals for the club, just four short of Ian Wright's all-time record. It should come soon, just as the Frenchman will probably set a target no Arsenal player of the future will find possible to emulate.
Henry is more than Cliff Bastin, the 1930s hero with whom he shared second place until Saturday's 4-1 victory over Norwich eased Arsenal into second place in the Premiership above Manchester United on goal difference. Bastin was essentially a winger who thrived on the cross-field passes of the wily Scottish international Alex James. Wright, in turn, was a speedy predator.
Henry is all things; scorer, creator, stylish entertainer. It is hard to believe that he arrived at Highbury as a winger, his conversion to centre-forward one of Wenger's master strokes. "I remembered that he [Henry] had played that position as a boy," Arsenal's manager said at the time.
If Henry is considered in some quarters to be a flat-track bully, if his quest for stunning goals is sometimes an irritation, there is no better sight in the Premiership when he is fully on his game. No Norwich defender was spared the torment of Henry's touch and pace, the drop-shouldered dummy, the sleight of foot and the sudden surges into space.
"Arsenal are a first-class team, Henry is a world-class player,' said the Norwich manager, Nigel Worthington, whose commendable efforts to avoid an immediate return to the Championship are now unlikely to bring any reward.
As Wenger points out, 67 points at this stage of any other season would have Arsenal in serious contention for the title. "It is different this year because Chelsea have gone well clear," he said. "We have scored 72 goals, but given away 33. That tells its own story."
Arsenal rue the long absences of Sol Campbell, who has played only 14 Premiership games this season and unquestionably a failure to equip the team with a reliable goalkeeper. The game is played at both ends and it is in defence, especially when required to deal with free-kicks and corners, that they have been found wanting.
Since second place would ensure Arsenal automatic qualification for the Champions' League, they cannot afford any slips. "My priority is always the League because it establishes consistency," Wenger added, "but we want to avoid extra matches at the start of next season. The margin in goal difference is small but with seven games to go it is better that we are in front."
The margin would have been greater had Arsenal taken all their chances against opponents whose commitment simply was not enough to contain Arsenal's fluency and Henry's hunger for goals.
Wearing the captain's armband in Patrick Vieira's absence, Henry - "he was nicely rested," Wenger said - struck twice in four first-half minutes to completely undermine Norwich's resistance. First, he took a pass from Robert Pires, stepped clear of two defenders, pivoted and beat Robert Green with a low shot.
Three minutes later, Henry scored the goal of the game. Receiving the ball on the left, from where he poses so much threat, selling more dummies than you will find in a clothes shop window, he danced past two defenders and scored with a perfectly curling shot into the far right-hand corner of Green's goal.
Surprisingly, Norwich hit back, and unsurprisingly their goal resulted from confusion in Arsenal's penalty area. Between them, Pascal Cygan and Kolo Touré failed to deal with a corner leaving Jens Lehmann to flap at the ball. It was not cleared and Graham Stuart's miscued drive reached Darren Huckerby, who drove it right footed into the top far corner of Arsenal's goal.
If Norwich's spirits were raised, the reality of an impossible task was again soon evident. Henry began the second half as he had ended the first, teasing the Norwich defence, going through his repertoire. But it was Freddie Ljungberg who restored Arsenal's two-goal lead. Shortly after Green has cleared from the Swede, Lauren broke away down the right where Adam Drury was slow to prevent the delivery of a looping centre. It is not often that Arsenal score from such a move, Ljungberg, however, headed in at the far post.
Pleasing as Arsenal are to watch, they are inclined to over-pass, Henry to seek the perfect goal. However, the Frenchman's third was more Shearer-like. Jose Antonio Reyes, driving powerfully in from the right, was brought down in the penalty area. Before the referee, Alan Wiley, could consider whether the challenge was legitimate or not, the ball reached Henry who slid it home for his hat-trick.
Goals: Henry (19) 1-0; Henry (22) 2-0; Huckerby (30) 2-1; Ljungberg (50) 3-1; Henry (66) 4-1.
Arsenal (4-4-2): Lehmann; Lauren, Touré, Cygan, Cole; Ljungberg, Flamini (Fabregas, 36), Gilberto, Pires (Clichy, 78); Henry, Reyes (Van Persie, 70). Substitutes not used: Almunia (gk), Eboué.
Norwich City (4-4-2): Green; Edworthy (Helveg, 73), Fleming, Shackell, Drury; Stuart, Holt (Safri, 59), Francis, Huckerby; Ashton, McKenzie (Svensson, 71). Substitutes not used: Ward (gk), Doherty.
Referee: A Wiley (Staffordshire).
Booked: Arsenal Cygan.
Man of the match: Henry.
Attendance: 38,066.Reuse content