Henry: the real battle

European success crucial if French manager is to keep captain from his admirers' clutches
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The Independent Online

Home-moving can be a stressful business. Only slightly less so than divorce, they say. As Arsenal sell off the old abode, prepare to pack up the silverware and load the removal vans for the short journey to Ashburton Grove, there is a suspicion that the former could be a precursor to the latter.

It should be emphasised immediately that manager Arsène Wenger laughingly dismisses any contention that either he or his captain and key striker Thierry Henry - or for that matter England defender Ashley Cole - will be absent from the Arsenal payroll come February when his team engage in a two-legged Champions' League confrontation with Real Madrid, the club who are said to covet them.

Nevertheless, would anyone be so bold as to prophesy that Henry, most crucially, will set those feet - as adept at piercing the opposition as a seamstress threading a needle - on the playing surface of the Emirates Stadium, should the London side fail to qualify for next season's élite European tournament? Next season would be his seventh with the club, he would be turning 29, and, for a player of his pre-eminence, it would be surprising if he was not afflicted by some serious itching of the imagination. Barcelona and Chelsea are also thought to be prepared to renew their overtures for the French international.

And what of Wenger's future, following a decade in which his players' splendidly fluid, cultivated football has captivated even those not of a Gunners' persuasion, complemented by conspicuous and consistent success?

On Friday, after training, the professor of football had turned expert witness in forensics as he attempted to analyse quite why his team had capitulated in the Premiership on no fewer than five occasions away from Highbury this season, a record that has left them 14 points adrift of today's opponents, Chelsea.

Conceding that Arsenal's possible failure to qualify for next season's Champions' League was "a concern", the Frenchman identified their shortcomings as inexperience; a failure to deal with the "bullying" of certain opposition, notably Bolton and Newcastle in successive weeks "with authority and calmness"; and the hiatus in some young players' careers.

The manager, who is contemplating at least one addition to his personnel in the January window, adds: "I feel we have a very strong team physically. But in the challenges you are not at 18 as you are at 22. That's why we will get better and better."

Arsenal sorely rue the move of their enforcer, Patrick Vieira, to Juventus in the summer. Henry is not so naturally endowed with the leadership qualities that Vieira would have employed to resist Newcastle's approach last Saturday. "Away from home this season, we have faced, I must say, some physical challenges where we couldn't respond," concedes Wenger. "We have always responded to that with authority before, and that is what the team must gain, without losing our game. A little bit of confidence has gone." He stresses, though, that the answer does not lie purely in further flexing of muscles. "If you take the Manchester United midfield of Scholes, Keane, Beckham and Giggs, you cannot say they were monsters, that they had players of 6ft 4in, who were more like heavyweight boxers. They are footballers."

Talk of his younger players going through a lull prompted the query whether managers can suffer a similar temporary decline, even those of his calibre and achievements, and also emerge stronger? "It can happen to everybody," he agreed. "You can never predict life." Asked whether he can maintain his extraordinarily high standards this season, Wenger retorts: "I believe I will. At the moment, you might have the temptation to think I will not. All I will say is I will fight every waking minute of my life to do it."

In short, he is determined he and his team depart Highbury with pride rather than resembling chastened evictees, though he concedes this is the toughest of recent seasons in the challenge to finish in the trio behind likely victors Chelsea and claim European qualification again.

This afternoon, the top third of the Premiership, but most of all Manchester United, will be mentally donning replica Gunners shirts as Arsenal prepare to renew acquaintance - or rather reopen old wounds - with Chelsea. Wenger smiled at an image presented of Sir Alex Ferguson garbed for the day in the redcurrant and white of Arsenal. "No, it's human," he declares. "Because everybody wants the Premiership to be interesting. That means having Arsenal and Liverpool and Man United fighting to the last day of the season."

That spat over Jose Mourinho's description of Wenger as "a voyeur", the Frenchman's threatened legal action, and the Colegate affair, invest the contest with more than its usual piquancy. "Basically, I must say, when I'm confronted with it, I take it," he says of his verbal duelling with Mourinho. "But for me, the most interesting is the quality of football. If you have to do it [become embroiled in a row], it's more to protect your team. I don't sit at home and think 'how can I now create a story for the newspapers?' I wonder more 'how can I play good football'?"

"I think he's [Mourinho's] done extremely well," adds Wenger. "You cannot dispute that they [Chelsea] won the championship well. At the moment, it looks like they will achieve that again. They play a very efficient style, you know. Great power in the middle of the park, great penetration up front."

The Arsenal manager refuses to support the much proffered argument that their London rivals have "bought" the title. "If you say that, Southampton could say the same of Arsenal in the past because we have more financial power," explains Wenger. "I just feel that they [Chelsea] are a team which does not have the same restrictions that others have. What is new in the game is that they have resources that you did not expect them to have at this stage. But money doesn't necessarily buy success."

However, as Arsenal may yet live to regret - with the moneybags of Europe sniffing ominously around Wenger, Henry and Cole - it doesn't half help.

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