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Henry's second coming

There were no second acts in Arsenal life. With his gaze perennially set far into the future, Arsene Wenger was football's most prominent ageist. His interest in plenty of players waned before their 30th birthday celebrations were concluded, while his business brain was evident whenever he sold a footballer before his market value deteriorated.

Thierry Henry was a case in point. Sold for €24 million in 2007, he has returned to London without a fee. A two-month loan deal is a cameo of a comeback and part of a trend: first Sol Campbell, then Jens Lehmann and now Henry have staged surprise homecomings. As Robert Pires also trained with Arsenal and Wenger considered re-signing Patrick Vieira, half of the Invincibles could have been back for an encore.

Campbell battled valiantly while there was a curiosity value to Lehmann's one-match second spell, but Henry has the most to lose. His reputation, deservedly, is the highest and thus most at risk of tarnishing should an immortal resemble an also-ran. At his peak, he had the rare combination of ruthlessness and style, gliding almost effortless past opponents and amassing 226 goals in eight seasons. He was the prototype for Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, the flair player as finisher.

It is why Henry is, despite the considerable claims of Ronaldo, Eric Cantona, Roy Keane, Ryan Giggs and Alan Shearer, the Premier League's greatest player. He is arguably Arsenal's finest, too, but he is back with secondary billing on the cast list.

Robin van Persie's winner against QPR meant he overhauled Henry's tally of 34 league goals in a calendar year. The Frenchman retains the more meaningful record of being the club's highest goalscorer, but Van Persie's prolific form means he has assumed a greater importance to the team than even Henry ever did.

Yet he will now be viewed in the context provided by Van Persie. Either he is the Dutchman's understudy - a role Marouane Chamakh has singularly failed to fill - or he is part of his supply line. Because while Henry was a distinctly unconventional spearhead to the Arsenal attack in his original incarnation at the club - and indeed Van Persie also has an idiosyncratic interpretation of the lone striker's duties - much of his Barcelona career was spent on the left flank.

While the departures of Chamakh and Gervinho to the African Nations Cup may have prompted Henry's recruitment, the Ivorian's exit should lead to his inclusion. The frustrating Andrey Arshavin and the underrated Yossi Benayoun are alternatives on the left, but there is a case for the club icon.

It comes in the opposing penalty area. Van Persie has been rendered more significant by Gervinho's wayward shooting: it is an understatement to say that his total of four goals in 24 games could have been doubled. In Henry, Wenger has a more clinical finisher. He need not hug the touchline. If the 34-year-old can get in the positions Gervinho does, making angled runs into the box, the burden on Van Persie could be lessened, albeit briefly.

Moreover, it is not an alien role. Even after his conversion from left winger to centre forward, Henry tended to wander out to the flank where there was greater room to display his startling speed. Indeed, in Arsenal's supreme strike partnership, Dennis Bergkamp was the pure technician and Henry a blend of footballing and physical ability. Now that his pace has diminished a little, he is a lesser player (even if, despite the sculpture of him outside the Emirates Stadium, he should still be quick enough to avoid being described as statuesque) but Arsenal's requirement is for an end product.

The pleasing element is that Henry appears to have accepted his decline. A player whose greatness inhibited others in his final year before joining Barcelona now seems aware of their subsequent progress and able to acclimatise. A declining power can be an elder statesman, and that is his task for two months. It is a deal that shows that Wenger is starting to see the benefits of short-termism as well as revealing his sentimental streak.

Henry's second coming makes mentions of Arsenal's recent golden age inevitable. They were halcyon days before billionaires transformed the landscape of English football and when an electric, elegant import was the greatest talent in the country.

With the past a theme, perhaps it is fitting, then, that his second debut could come in a fixture with a history of its own. Arsenal meet Leeds in Monday's FA Cup game, a re-run of last year's third-round tie, which went to a replay, and the 1972 final. That was decided in Leeds' favour by Allan Clarke, nicknamed 'Sniffer' for his ability to sniff out a chance.

It was an attribute Henry, though far more than a poacher, shared. Leeds can testify to that: he scored four times the last time he faced them, in 2004, and plundered nine goals in his last five encounters with them. Get another and Arsenal will be transported back to more pleasurable days while Henry will help preserve his legend.


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