Thierry Henry spoke yesterday of the joy of playing at Highbury, his sadness at Dennis Bergkamp's impending retirement and the significance of beating Villarreal in the Champions' League semi-final first leg tonight - but in the end it came down to the same old question: would he be playing for Arsenal next season?
It was with indignation that the Arsenal captain answered, rapping his fist on the table to emphasise each point and spelling out very clearly what he regards as his right to wait until the summer to decide on his future. What had tweaked his temper this time was the suggestion that he owed the Arsenal fans an explanation for his delay in signing a contract that has been waiting for his approval since the new year.
"Who do I owe, and for what?" Henry asked. "Don't you see my commitment on the pitch? I think you can see it. I'm a human being like you are and need time to take my decision, that's all. I don't think about the word 'owe'. I owe something to my dad, yes, who put me on this planet."
With an honourable exception for Monsieur Toni Henry, no one would suggest for a moment that Henry owes anyone anything, least of all Arsenal for whom 209 goals and seven years' invaluable service have repaid their faith in him countless times over. More telling was the nature of the reaction from Henry - the vehemence of his reply suggested a man who, even on the brink of the most important matches in Arsenal's history, is still wrestling with a decision that divides him to his very core.
The question of his future - whether he leaves, probably for Barcelona, or not - is something that, in a calmer moment, Henry joked "people are talking about more than they talk about EastEnders". If he wants to know why everyone is so interested, he should cast his mind back to a column he wrote exclusively for The Sun on 8 January in which he said: "I have made my mind up to stay at Arsenal". So what has changed? Yesterday, sadly, Henry was not for answering that, although he was articulate and engrossing on just about everything else. He is 28, in unstoppable form and extremely sensitive about any suggestion that his Arsenal career might end in little more than a month's time.
Would winning the European Cup symbolise the greatest possible send-off for Henry? "You can take that both ways," Arsène Wenger said. "The incentive is to achieve it again... It is always the next trophy which motivates you."
For Henry the European Cup represents the missing trophy from one of the most impressive hauls in modern football and he warned that, although reaching the semi-finals was an achievement, "it doesn't say 'Champions' League semi-finalists' on your CV".
Tonight will be the last European match played at Highbury before Arsenal make their summer move to the Emirates Stadium - Henry said he would miss the quality of the pitch most of all and wished that instead of being converted into flats the club would leave the ground as a museum relic. From Wenger there was a more lyrical tribute. The manager said: "Part of my soul is in the stadium ... because the biggest and the best memories of my sporting career have been there - that's something special. The stadium has a special soul and to lose it will be sad."
That was, to clarify, a special "soul", not a special Sol, because the defender Sol Campbell, whose nose was broken last week, is injured, out of favour and not even on the bench tonight. Jose Antonio Reyes is suspended, which would appear to leave Wenger with a choice of two from Alexander Hleb, Robert Pires and Robin van Persie. The preferred formula in Europe is to start with a midfield of five and leave the Dutchman on the bench. That five will include the Spaniard Cesc Fabregas, who has recovered from his foot injury.
Playing Henry without your best goalkeeper and two first-choice centre-backs is not ideal but that is the task facing Villarreal tonight, for whom the defenders Gonzalo Rodriguez and Manuel Pena are injured while the Uruguayan goalkeeper Sebastian Viera is suspended. In their defeat to Barcelona on Friday they rested Diego Forlan and Juan Riquelme, the Argentinian midfielder, whom Henry singled out as Villarreal's most dangerous player. But most important for the new Arsenal team that has been born in this Champions' League run was, Henry said, that the young players had lost the "factor in their heads" that inhibited them against famous opposition.
"Sometimes when you have a lot of experience you think about it too much. They're just going out to do their thing. We have a lot of youngsters, a bunch of young lads who are up for it when the whistle blows, but when we're not out there concentrating they like to have a laugh and mess around and joke - you can see that. It took a while because some of the players were learning their position but there is a great ambience in the team. From the first time I played in the Champions' League I wanted to win it. Any team that enters the competition wants to win it and I have since the beginning. It's a fact that it is the big thing missing from my CV, and also from Arsenal's."
After his goal on the day dedicated to him on Saturday, there may be little chance that Bergkamp is given a game tonight unless desperation or sentimentality, or both, grips Wenger. The retirement of the Dutch striker moved Henry to eulogise the 36-year-old's "pure intelligence", citing the goal he made for Pires on Saturday as an example. "When he stops playing I'm going to cry. Dennis deserves to win everything... It would be something amazing if Dennis Bergkamp finished by winning the Champions' League."
It would also be something amazing for Henry to finish his Arsenal career on the same note, although he was giving nothing away.Reuse content