Mike Gibbons

Mike Gibbons is an aspiring young journalist from the UK who has followed the World Cup with passion from an early age. He will share his views about the past, present and future of this event.

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The French Enigma

    He wants, we have been told many times, to be remembered as one of the best we have seen. His current coach Arsene Wenger and his team-mates have all revealed how he is obsessed with his place in history, to be remembered with the likes of Eusebio, Gerd Muller and Marco Van Basten as one of the great strikers in the history of football. He certainly has the attributes – lightning pace, a great finisher, exceptional skill on the ball. Despite this, to be mentioned in the same hushed tones as such luminaries, you have to deliver when the pressure is at its utmost; you must be the decisive influence on the biggest games in football.

    This was the situation Thierry Henry found himself in on Wednesday night in Paris. It must be said, his track record at this type of pressurised level is not great. For the French national team, which for a large period of his career can be considered one of the greatest of all time, he has been only a peripheral influence. In the knockout stages of tournaments he has scored only once in seven matches, and that was a deflected strike in the Euro 2000 semi-final against Portugal. He was not selected for the 1998 World Cup final and Wiltord and Trezeguet were sent on as substitutes to turn around the Euro 2000 final in which he failed to shine. Zidane, Blanc, Djorkaeff and Deschamps were the figureheads, everyone else just fell into line. As the saying goes, great teams are essentially made up of 3 or 4 great players.

    Such damning statistics also pepper his illustrious career at Arsenal – no goals in 3 FA Cup finals or 5 FA Cup semi-finals, a blank against 10-man Galatassaray in the 2000 UEFA Cup final. This record trickles into the Champions League as well – only one in four quarter-final matches up until this season. When the accepted good return for a striker is one per two games, this does not hint at greatness.

    In his defence, his league record for Arsenal is fantastic, as is his strike-rate for them in the group stages of the Champions League. However, if you misfire in one of these games, another one will be along in one or two weeks. What happens to him in the one-off must win matches? When the jeopardy is right up, why does he disappear into his shell, a forlorn figure patrolling the right flank, scarcely impacting on the game?

    These were all questions being asked of Thierry Henry by a swelling school of thought that he simply cannot produce it when it matters most, and up until the start of the 2005-06 season the evidence seemed pretty conclusive. At one point this season seemed likely to be the one in which he would end these arguments once and for all. In the September he scored a sublime goal for France in Dublin to snatch what would prove to be the crucial victory that put France in the World Cup finals. Then in February he scored another great goal in the Bernabau against Real Madrid that would ultimately put Arsenal into the Champions League quarter-finals. Once there, another in the home leg against Juventus gave his team the platform to reach the last four.

    Against Villarreal, a team Arsenal were expected to brush aside, the old Henry surfaced. He had little influence in either leg and cut a brooding, distant figure. Against Real Madrid and Juventus his team had not really been expected to win after having an awful season domestically, so in a sense he was operating under much less pressure in those games. However Arsenal, with a now unusual commitment to defending, made it through to the final. One chance, perhaps his last in an Arsenal shirt, to finally prove his detractors wrong, against Barcelona, the team most interested in acquiring his services.

    He had the first two chances of the final – a one on one which he hit straight at Valdes, and a long range strike which was palmed away easily. The game turned with the sending off of Arsenal goalkeeper Jens Lehmann, but despite this disadvantage a very dubiously earned free-kick that Henry took was headed in by Sol Campbell to give Arsenal the lead. Henry now had to play up front on his own – a tough job when you’re playing ten against eleven, but you need to be the outlet, to take the pressure off. Instead, the ball kept coming back to the Barcelona defenders, and the game was played exclusively in the Arsenal half. Under huge pressure ten-man Arsenal eventually buckled late on in the hammering rain, firstly to a Samuel Eto’o goal and then to a strike from a narrow angle by Belletti, from which there was no way back.

    This defeat however can scarcely be blamed on Henry, more on the paucity of the supply to him, the replacement goalkeeper Almunia being particularly wasteful when kicking out of hand. Ronaldinho, with whom Henry is meant to be locked in some eternal battle to be the best player in the world, sparked only intermittently and it was two substitutes who were the deciding influence – Iniesta, whose short passing dragged Arsenal all over the park and took their legs away, and Larsson, the wily old veteran who supplied two deft assists for Barcelona’s goals.

    However it could, maybe should, have been so different. About five minutes before Barcelona equalised, Henry was put clean through for a one on one with Valdes. Here was a chance for 2-0, the chance to be a hero, especially with the crater that Valdes exposed to his right for him to aim at – but he hit a meek shot straight at him. It brought back memories of the toe-curlingly awful efforts by Stephane Guivarch for France in the same stadium against Brazil eight years ago. You can’t judge a striker on one chance, but this seemed to encapsulate Henry in the big games. The ex-pro brigade on English TV trotted out the usual clichés, ‘nine times out of ten he would have buried that’ and so on, but will he ever have another shot at goal in a Champions League final? He complained later that he had nothing left in his legs, but a cramp-ridden Steven Gerrard was in a much worse condition when he spectacularly pulled last weekend’s FA Cup final out of the ether for Liverpool.

    That may be his last act in an Arsenal shirt, and perhaps it is only within the confines of the soon to be vacated Highbury that he will be considered a legend, unless he can go on to greater things at the Camp Nou. There is another opportunity to enhance his standing internationally though, and it is not far away – France have a good draw in this summer’s World Cup and this is a competition with which he has some issues after being sidelined from the glory in 1998 and sent off as France crashed out in 2002. He doesn’t necessarily need to win the golden boot but does need to stamp his class on an international tournament, which he has never really done for the French. He is 29 this summer so this could be the last big chance, especially with a raft of retirements by his team-mates on the horizon and despite the gob-smacking decision to omit Ludovic Giuly from the squad for Germany.

    So we shall see next month. For now, the mystery of Thierry Henry will remain unsolved.



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