Written in the stars
The romance of the FA Cup may be fading yet this year's third round has been reigniting old flames. Paul Scholes' return to Manchester United had happened in characteristically downbeat fashion on Sunday. In contrast, Arsenal fans have had time to greet the return of their king in the ostentatious style he was once accustomed to; he repaid their ardour with what they will consider the sweetest of gestures.
From his presence on the substitutes' bench being announced amid the type of primal roar that greets a winner against Spurs, the stage was set for Thierry Henry. Bench-bound for a drab first half, he soon lifted spirits with a lithe shuttle run to begin a warm-up. With 22 minutes to play, the Arsenal fans knew their wish was coming true as he stood stripped and ready. Then, the roof was raised in a fashion as loud as when Barcelona were beaten at the Emirates a year ago, as their hero finally took the stage. The noise levels were to be raised yet higher.
The homecoming king took a little time to take a meaningful touch, waiting seven minutes to hold off Andros Townsend and play a pass out to the left wing. The days of putting on the afterburners and blazing away from defenders looked gone, yet a minute later the old Henry reappeared. Arriving into space from the left of the penalty area, he seized on a weighted pass from Alex Song, opened his body up in familiar style and placed the ball unerringly past Leeds United 'keeper Andy Lonergan. That right foot still knew what to do. Henry had proven that he can still write the scripts for Arsenal.
"I thought, 'Oh, that's your angle'," a smiling Arsene Wenger said of the winning goal. "But it's a little too close and that's where he surprised me. He made it just look easy.
"He's seen it all, done it all. He was already a legend here, and tonight he's added a little bit more. He's a proud guy. He knows he will be compared to what he's done before. It's a kind of comeback and you want that to be a success."
Since a statue was unveiled to the club's all-time leading scorer last month, it was obvious that Henry could provide a lift to the dark winter months of a highly confusing season for Arsenal. He follows Jens Lehmann and Sol Campbell in providing a familiar stopgap to a problem position. Arsene Wenger has never much liked the January transfer market, choosing instead to work with the tried, trusted, then trusted once more. "It looks like in the January transfer window you look to old players," he joked.
An early miss from Andrei Arshavin, himself a January arrival three years ago, revealed something of Wenger's logic. The crowd's anger at a poor finish from the Russian illustrated why Henry has been recalled. Too many of the current generation have question marks placed against them. With Marouane Chamakh looking as poor a stand-in for Robin van Persie as Francis Jeffers and Jeremie Aliadiere once did for Henry in his Highbury prime, it serves as little wonder that Wenger looked back to the future.
Chamakh now looks a player unwilling to enter the opposition box in fear of missing a chance, and may well be done some good by playing at the forthcoming African Nations Cup. He exited the field for Henry, already a forgotten man in the light of his replacement's exploits.
Such is the reliance on Van Persie, holidaying with Diego Maradona in Dubai, that any Arsenal team without him looks understrength. However, this was not a truly weakened team since resources are spread so thinly that there are few reserves left to call on. A hamstring injury to a young blood like Francis Coquelin was a bad blow in the face of a full-back crisis, and though Nigel Winterburn and Lee Dixon were in the building, Wenger must ignore temptation and look to play more players out of position.
Leeds United, under the fiery control of chairman Ken Bates, are a club looking even further down Memory Lane for comfort. A fixture against Arsenal will always conjure memories of the 1972 Centenary Final, where Allan 'Sniffer' Clarke won the cup for the only time in the club's history. There have been too many lean years since then - it will be two decades this summer since their last league championship - and this was a team reduced even from just a year ago, when they took the Gunners to a replay at the same stage of this competition.
Of the Leeds team that ran Arsenal so close last year, Max Gradel has been sold and Robert Snodgrass and Jonny Howson were injured; boss Simon Grayson, a man with his head on the chopping block at the Bates Motel, if rumours are to be believed, could only hope for containment and an unlikely breakaway. A late Mikael Forssell chance was Leeds' best moment to spoil the party but "1-0 to the Arsenal", via a Thierry Henry winner, was all but preordained.
"It was written in the stars that what happened would happen," Grayson said. "How many times has Thierry Henry been in that left-hand channel and bent one in?"
And how many more times will Henry do it for Arsenal? "He has six and a half weeks," Wenger said, before admitting he might be able to lengthen the deal to eight weeks. So it will have to be a holiday romance, but Arsenal and Thierry Henry's love for each other has been reaffirmed in storybook style.
MAN OF THE MATCH: Thierry Henry. Rarely does a sub gain such a garlanded honour, but this was a game all about one man even before he took the field. Henry perhaps took six touches at maximum in his cameo, but he supplied a sole note of class, and with it a thousand headlines.
ARSENAL VERDICT: Clearly superior yet lacking in cutting edge until a certain someone arrived, they had the blunt look of rather too many Arsenal performances this season before being supplied the single goal they required. Arshavin, after his early miss, looked a little livelier than normal while Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain perhaps tried to force things too much.
LEEDS VERDICT: If Arsenal were blunt then Leeds were positively edgeless until the very death when the impressive Andros Townsend set up Forssell. Goalkeeper Lonergan was their best player, behind a hard-worked defence who let their guard drop one too many times. Luciano Becchio was not the force he was a year ago but ran many a channel in thankless effort. A replay was denied them. "The chairman would have been happy for a bit more revenue," a wry Grayson said.