By Richard Clarke in Prague
Thierry Henry is now the greatest goal-scorer in Arsenal’s history and the manner in which he broke Ian Wright’s record once again proved his value to Arsène Wenger’s side.
The manager had suggested he would give his French striker a 30-minute run at the end of this game. It was a prudent move by Wenger as Henry had been absent for six weeks with a groin injury.
However fate was to intervene. Jose Antonio Reyes was forced off with a rib injury in the 15th minute. Six minutes and four touches later, Henry produced a stunning strike to put Arsenal ahead. Then, 16 minutes from the end, came the goal that will be remembered and replayed.
It was no cracker, just a simple swivel and turn. Still it was Henry’s 186th in only his 303rd appearance in an Arsenal shirt. An incredible achievement from an incredible individual.
The victory his goals provided puts Arsenal five points clear at the top of Group B with three games left.
They have one foot in the Knockout Stages. Henry has a place in history.
As expected, Wenger restored Gilberto and Robin van Persie to the starting XI. In addition, Pascal Cygan replaced Philippe Senderos at centre back.
It was a chilly night at the Sparta Stadium. The atmosphere was made no warmer by the 6,000 seats left empty after the Czech champions were punished by Uefa following racist chanting by their fans.
However, there was a little familiarity for the vocal Arsenal support. Sparta’s shirts are the same ‘redcurrant’ colour as we have been used to seeing at Highbury all season. Back in 1906, Sparta president Dr Petric had visited Woolwich Arsenal. He liked the colour of their shirts and returned home with a set. They have worn them ever since.
Arsenal had been distinctly off-colour at West Brom on Saturday. But that was in the Premiership, Wenger’s men have been excellent in the Champions League this season and it took only 75 seconds to suggest they might continue that run.
That’s when Lauren sent Cesc Fabregas clear on the right and the 18-year-old Spaniard sped through to force Jaromir Blazek into action at his near-post.
Sparta had been struggling at home and in the Champions League but their response must have pleased new coach Stanislav Griga.
In the ninth minute, Zdenek Pospech profited from Gael Clichy’s error at the far post and Jens Lehmann had to kick-away his low shot. Shortly afterwards Toure had to race across and block a dangerous-looking drive by Miroslav Slepicka.
Then Henry made his mark.
Reyes had already taken a clout and he struggled to get up after he was body-checked in the 15th minute. The Spaniard went off feeling the lower part of his back and Henry was on.
It took only six minutes for the 28-year-old striker to make the difference. With his first touch, he controlled a high ball just outside the area and sent a vicious volley goalwards. It might have gone in but a deflection diverted the ball over the bar. Sparta would not be so lucky three touches later.
In the 19th minute, Henry controlled Toure’s pass in the corner of the area, span into position and, ignoring the more obvious pass to Van Persie, curled a shot with the outside of his right foot into the far corner of the net.
Again Sparta responded well. But, although they had significant possession, there was no edge to their game. The closest they came to levelling came just before the half hour when Pospech volleyed woefully wide from a high, hanging cross from the left.
The trend continued after the break. Arsenal were defending reasonably well and were simply staying solid while looking to exploit any opportunities that might come their way. The onus was on Sparta to prise them open and, despite continuing pressure, they did not seem up for the job.
In fairness, Karol Kisel’s long-range did force Lehmann to tip over in the 53rd minute.
Arsenal re-affirmed control midway through the half. Henry fed a cute through ball to Fabregas and the midfielder’s shot was blocked by Blazek’s body at the near post.
Then THE goal came. Pires sent a raking ball into the area. Henry checked to fool the surrounding defenders before coolly slotting past Blazek. He beckoned over his team-mates in celebration.
Prague rallied briefly and Slepicka even hit the post in jury time. But it seemed this was to be a night when no other striker was ever going to score.
Welcome back Thierry. We have missed you.
Referee: Wolfgang Stark
Copyright 2018 The Arsenal Football Club plc. Permission to use quotations from this article is granted subject to appropriate credit being given to www.arsenal.com as the source.