It had all felt a bit self-indulgent for those outside north London; like an old boxer taking on a couple of, with due respect here, clubs past their best. Championship Leeds in the Cup at the Emirates, Blackburn, also at home. A goal in each game. Great. One last encore? OK, it's deserved. Did we say how good you were?
It actually seemed to say more about the fading power of Arsenal than Henry's legend. Until yesterday that is.
He still indulged himself, but he always did, except this time it was real. This time he was adding to his story, rather than risking it with an at best questionable footnote.
This time his sense of timing was as exquisite as his goals used to be. Henry was sent on just past the hour when neither side had scored and Arsenal had not even threatened, and he received the warmest of receptions from home supporters.
That was a nice touch, even if the kind gesture would end up jammed back in the throats of the Sunderland supporters.
This was a victory that seemed to come despite planning, rather than because of it. When Per Mertesacker crumpled dramatically in the 70th minute, under pressure but not under a tackle, this game seemed to have had its defining moment. It was more grim reality for Arsenal, who had not won away from home since 21 December. Sunderland did not stop and you could not blame them for that. Arsène Wenger was in generous spirits afterwards and he admitted they had done nothing wrong, but he did not leave his seat as James McClean seized on the German defender's misfortune, so his actions backed his assertions in victory.
McClean is developing into a left winger of some distinction, a throw back, all left foot, pace and tricks. He charged towards the Arsenal goal, ignored team-mates to his right and drilled a left foot shot past Wojciech Szczesny. Arsenal has 20 minutes to save face.
Yet perhaps the wheel of fortune took a turn for Wenger. Mertesacker was carried off (he has damaged ankle ligaments) and Arsenal's spirit could have gone with him. Instead, the new and the old came to the fore.
Within five minutes they were level, Aaron Ramsey, who had replaced the injured central defender, struck a shot from the edge of the Sunderland penalty area that hit the left post, then the right before going over the line. Still Sunderland, who had gone close twice through the excellent Craig Gardner and had seen a decent first-half penalty appeal turned down, stood strong.
The warning that was not heeded came in the 90th minute, when Andrey Arshavin, who had come on three minutes earlier, crossed and Robin van Persie, who had barely had a kick, headed into the arms of Simon Mignolet.
Sixty seconds later, again from Arshavin on the left, came a cross that saw Henry sneak in between John O'Shea and Michael Turner, before opening up his body and placing his right foot shot beyond the Sunderland goalkeeper.
The stage was once more his, stood, arms outstretched in front of 3,000 adoring Arsenal fans.
"He finished the story of the legend today in the Premier League," said Wenger. "Hopefully he will do the same in the Champions' League on Wednesday. I heard it might haunt me, that he will go again and people will say why did he not stay? They never lose it, their exceptional talent survives. [Paul] Scholes at Manchester United and Henry here. It is a luxury to have a player like him on the bench but now he has to go back. He goes back on the 16th. Wednesday in Milan and on Thursday he goes back."
For Martin O'Neill, the goal was a crushing reality. Not much has gone wrong since his return to management, but this was cruel. "We didn't deserve to lose," he said. "I have no complaints about the team whatsoever. Their heart and soul have gone into the games. The boys just need a bit of energy again."
Sunderland (4-5-1): Mignolet; Bardsley, O'Shea, Turner, Richardson; Campbell (Ji, 87), Larsson, Gardner, Colback, McClean; Sessegnon.
Arsenal (4-2-3-1): Szczesny; Sagna, Mertesacker (Ramsey, 72), Koscielny, Vermaelen; Arteta, Song; Walcott (Arshavin, 87), Rosicky, Oxlade-Chamberlain (Henry, 66); Van Persie.
Referee Neil Swarbrick.
Man of the match Gardner (Sunderland).
Match rating 7/10.
Brits in Europe this week
Champions' League: Wednesday
Milan v Arsenal (7.45pm, ITV1)
Arsène Wenger regards the 2-0 victory away to Milan at this stage of the 2007-08 competition as one of Arsenal's best. But it came in a run of five League games without a win that cost them the title, a lapse they can't afford if they want to be in next season's Champions' League. Wenger picked out Alexandre Pato, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Robinho as threats, but with Clarence Seedorf in the mix it is doubtful if the Italians can find room for them all.
Europa League: Thursday
Ajax v Manchester United (6pm, Channel 5)
Frank de Boer's Ajax are going through one of their periodic bouts of internal strife, this time involving old enemies Louis van Gaal and Johan Cruyff. The whole board resigned and successive defeats in the Dutch league have left the team languishing in sixth place. United will hope to take advantage, but team selection will be interesting in terms of ambition in their first foray into this competition.
Porto v Manchester City (8.05pm, ITV1)
Demoted from the Champions' League like United, City will also want either to go all the way in this competition or duck out of it quickly as the two Manchester teams battle it out on the Premier League front. Porto, who were also squeezed out of the senior competition, have lost only once in the Portuguese league and could push them hard. They have brought back the Argentinian midfielder Lucho Gonzalez from Marseille and he will need watching.
Stoke City v Valencia (8.05pm, ESPN)
Stoke's first European adventure since 1975, which began back in the balmy days of July, resumes against the team who finished third in the Spanish league last season and appear set to repeat that achievement. Following two draws against Dynamo Kiev, this looks like being the biggest test yet for Tony Pulis's team in another potentially fascinating clash of styles.
Steve TongueReuse content