By Richard Clarke at Emirates Stadium
Arsenal may need to order some bronze in the coming weeks.
After acquiring Thierry Henry on loan last Friday, Arsène Wenger had assured the media that the legacy of the legendary striker was safe.
“They can only build a bigger statue,” the manager quipped.
Against Leeds on Monday, it took Henry just ten minutes to write another chapter in a book which we had thought had closed in 2007.
He replaced Marouane Chamakh to delirium in the 68th minute and, soon after, showed the intelligence instilled during his 226-goal career in North London to pull away from his marker, control Alex Song’s incisive pass and slide a shot into the far corner.
Henry beat his chest by way of celebration and ran to embrace Wenger. At the full-time whistle, his raised his hands to the heavens and may have shed a tear as he had before Christmas when his likeness was unveiled outside the stadium.
Then he drank in the adulation of the crowd.
This victory hands Arsenal a Fourth Round tie against Aston Villa in late January. But perhaps more importantly, Henry’s contribution also gave Wenger’s men a timely boost when they seemed to be wobbling just a little.
At 34, Henry is not going to provide this sort of drama every week for the next two months.
But class is permanent and Arsenal are all the better for the King’s return.
Henry’s name nearly took the roof off Emirates Stadium when it was announced before kick-off. A full and bushy beard seemingly hid half his face but, even in the warm-up, that the old swagger was obvious. We did not know how much the passing years had taken from him, but his shirt number had gone down by two. TH14 was now TH12.
Otherwise Wenger’s team was the promised mix of first team and future team. Only Wojciech Szczesny, Laurent Koscielny, Alex Song, Mikel Arteta and Aaron Ramsey could claim to be regulars. Marouane Chamakh and Andrey Arshavin had been bench-bound for much of the Premier League campaign.
Leeds arrived at Emirates Stadium just outside the play-off places in the Championship. However, their form had been patchy and, this evening, their defence was patched-up. Still they had around 5,000 fans in north London this evening and most of them would have remembered how close they came to a shock last season. Perhaps it was that memory which inspired Arsenal’s bright, pacy start.
The home side bossed the first 15 minutes with Ramsey orchestrating the attacks from midfield.
Arshavin blasted wide in the opening stages and then, in the fifth minute, Chamakh sent the Russian scuttling through the middle. He fired over the bar when he should have done better.
Ramsey wonderfully weaved his way down the right but, although his cross found Oxlade-Chamberlain, the winger did not manage to get off a shot.
The home side were working up a head of steam now. Squillaci nodded narrowly wide from Mikel Arteta’s far-flung free-kick before Ramsey rifled a shot wide.
In the 24th minute, the Welshman’s shot was deflected over after Arsenal had ping-ponged passes across the Leeds area. Seconds after that, Arteta’s drive shaved the post.
As the half-hour approached Arsenal had the game in the palm of their hand. However, in the next five minutes, matters would turn against them.
Firstly, Leeds conjured up their first chance when Mika Vayrynen nipped in amid confusion in the penalty area and Luciano Becchio hammered the loose ball over the bar. A massive opportunity.
Then Coquelin pulled up with what appeared to be a hamstring injury and hobbled off. Nico Yennaris came on for his second appearance in an Arsenal shirt.
After that, Arsenal were not quite the same for the rest of the half. Arshavin, who had a lively game, saw an effort blocked and Ramsey’s drive deflected wide. Koscielny headed over from Arteta’s corner with the final touch of the first period.
The home side re-discovered their energy after the restart. Perhaps the sight of Henry warming up acted as an inspiration.
Oxlade-Chamberlain drove into the sidenetting within seconds of opening whistle. Inside the next 10 minutes, Arshavin shanked a volley wide and fired straight across goal. Inbetween, Arteta’s sidefoot shot forced a fine low save from David Lonergan.
Oxlade-Chamberlain’s drive was blocked, via a Leeds arm according to the player himself. Then Ramsey’s excellent footwork set-up the former Southampton winger and Aiden White had to head the ball over his cross over the bar with Chamakh lurking.
Just after the hour, Oxlade-Chamberlain forced Lonergan to block and then fired wide.
It was all Arsenal once more. The home side were dominating with pace and invention.
At this moment, Wenger introduced Henry.
The manager withdrew Chamakh and Oxlade-Chamberlain for Walcott and the iconic Frenchman.
Henry had suggested he was happy to be an impact player if required – and that was exactly his role tonight.
As we entered the final 15 minutes, the statistics told the story. Arsenal mustered 28 goalscoring chances, Leeds one. They doubled that tally when Szczesny’s errant clearance fell to Ramon Nunez. But the keeper recovered by the time the Honduran got his shot away.
Then came the moment. Vision from Song. Two touches from Henry. The perfect ending.
Leeds now had to gamble and might have grabbed an unlikely equaliser when an unmarked Ross McCormack headed straight at Szczesny from eight yards out.
Arshavin fired into the sidenetting at the other end and Leeds’ late flurry blew itself out.
Henry had rolled back the years in fairytale fashion.
- Coquelin 33
- Arteta (C)
- Chamakh 68
- Oxlade-Chamberlain 68
- Arshavin Yellow Card
- Yennaris 33
- Walcott 68
- Henry 68 Goal!
- O'Dea Yellow Card
- Townsend Yellow Card
- Vayrynen 61
- Nunez 82
- Becchio 74
- Brown 61
- Forssell 82
- McCormack 74