Strife without Henry - have Bergkamp will travel

"We've got Dennis Bergkamp," was the most popular chorus that May evening, the old master decorating the canvas to earn a new one-year contract, as the bright young things did his fetching and carrying. Who needs Thierry?

It was a seductive but ultimately misleading thought. Without the second heaviest scorer in their history (currently one goal behind Ian Wright's record), Arsenal promptly ended their League campaign in defeat at Birmingham, and a week later in the FA Cup final gave the most untypically negative performance of Wenger's nine years at the club; Bergkamp was utterly miscast as the lone, and lonely, forward, and it was a travesty that Manchester United should be deprived of the Cup in a penalty shoot-out.

At the start of the new campaign Henry - who has never yet missed more than seven League games in a season - weighed in with three goals in as many matches, adding a superbly struck one to give France a crucial victory away to the Republic of Ireland. But his body was protesting all the while and this time he has decided to listen: "I have had the injury since the beginning of the season and I was hoping that the pain would go away but it hasn't, so eventually I had to stop to see if I can get rid of the inflammation. I need to take a bit of care of my body because I used to play through pain, even when I couldn't walk in the morning. That wasn't doing me any good at the end of last season."

Not that his absence from the last two games has done Arsenal any good either. They have relied on Jose Antonio Reyes as the principal striker, a role in which he never looks comfortable, supported by Bergkamp in defeat at Middlesbrough and then Robin van Persie against the Swiss sprats FC Thun, who, after Van Persie's harsh dismissal, were resisting all attempts to net them until Bergkamp was summoned from the dug-out. With Van Persie suspended and Henry still recuperating, the 36-year-old Dutchman will now have to make a rare Champions' League appearance away from home in a fortnight's time, returning to his native Amsterdam to face his first club, Ajax.

Before that, Arsenal have two Premiership games in which to shift themselves from a position so far down the table that recently recruited glory-hunters will be blinking in disbelief; it is seven years since they were as low as ninth and more than a decade since sitting outside the top 10. Everton, smarting from their 5-1 Uefa Cup débâcle in Bucharest, return to Highbury tomorrow, and West Ham followers are already relishing the fixture at Upton Park on Saturday. Normally two defeats at this stage of the season would be a minor irritation, but since the eventual champions seem to suffer so few reverses these days, it has become a more serious matter, which is why Wenger was so annoyed to lose at Middlesbrough.

Significantly, given Henry's absence, he picked out "movement behind their defenders" as a principal deficiency, and cannot have been any more impressed with that aspect of the game against Thun.

The dressing-room mantra, however, is that the season is young, the squad talented, and despair unnecessary. Listen to Cesc Fabregas, the little midfielder given more responsibility in the wake of Patrick Vieira's departure than an 18-year-old should have to bear: "We have quality players, we have to believe in ourselves and everything will get better. We've lost a great player and it's a great challenge for me. We lost two games, OK, but we've been playing good football. Everyone has respect for Thierry and misses him but he's not here, so we have to try to replace him. The season is long."

England's Ashley Cole, rapidly becoming one of the team's senior citizens, is equally upbeat about the prospects in both the Premiership and the Champions' League, despite the evidence of a faltering start: "Everyone knows when you lose two games it's going to be hard, but I think we've had a good start in the way we've been playing. We've been playing good football but not taking our chances, and the luck hasn't gone our way. We're a young team but experienced as well. People like Kolo [Touré] have played 150 games now. You see the way we play, we're all for one and one for all.

"Seeing Liverpool win the Champions' League makes you want to get better. We have confidence and belief in the team that we can, and if we get a little bit of luck, which Liverpool had, and avoid injuries, then we can go all the way. We've got Thierry out and we do miss him, but we've got to deal with what we've got. Hopefully, when he comes back and the games start to get serious, we can keep all the team together."

That also means, in the longer term, Henry signing a new contract, a process that often seems unnecessarily tortuous in the case of Arsenal's most accomplished performers. The events of the past few months should have added a new urgency to the club's intentions.

Comments