LONDON: It takes a special talent to illuminate a drab night of Champions League soccer. And Thierry Henry is a singularly special talent.
That Frenchman was summoned from the bench after a six-week absence resulting from a groin injury, and he conjured up two distinctive goals to give his club, Arsenal, a 2-0 victory in Prague.
In doing so, Henry eclipsed the goal-scoring records of any player in the 119-year history of Arsenal.
Each goal was crafted out of deft, controlled, almost magical use of his right foot. Each struck a note above anything else in the match between Sparta Prague and Arsenal.
And each proved that while soccer is a team sport, it is sometimes what is in the mind, the imagination of the individual, that really counts.
“I don’t know what to say,” Henry exclaimed on television immediately after the final whistle. “Obviously, the three points are most important, but for once, breaking the record is something I always wanted to do.”
He stopped in mid-sentence. He groped for words as he seldom does for movement on the pitch. He repeated three times “I’m over ze moon.” The old English cliche delivered in a French accent summed him up.
Here is a player of instinct, a mover of Gallic charm in an Arsenal squad representing a London club that fielded not one British-born player on Tuesday.
And here was a match winner, his personal health risked after a solitary, light training session following more than a month’s pain in his groin, speaking as if he could barely help putting the ball where others could not - into the net.
Maybe he couldn’t find the words, but he found the actions.
For his first goal, six minutes after replacing another injured player, Jose Antonio Reyes, he simply obeyed the intuition he was born with. Kolo Toure had picked him out with a long, direct pass out of the Arsenal half.
Henry controlled it with a dab of his right heel. He let the ball bounce at his back, he simply ignored the dumbstruck Czech defender Adam Petrous, half turned and, with a knowing glance towards the goal frame 20 paces in front of him, used the outside of his right boot to glance the ball, caress it, guide it in a graceful arc beyond the reach of goalkeeper Jaromir Blazek.
There was a space of about the width of that ball between the keeper’s right hand and the far post. Henry found it.
Visibly lifted out of a display that looked as barren as most others this Tuesday, Arsenal played with a single thought. Get the ball to Henry, and wait for him to repeat the act.
After 74 minutes, he did. Not quite with the same panache, but with equal finality, he sensed where his countryman Robert Pires would direct the pass. Henry moved onto it with a diagonal run that was yards in thought ahead of two defenders.
Once, twice, he nudged the ball to his right. Then, when the angle was to his liking, he struck it low and plumb centre of the net.
Now he was calling the Arsenal players to him. It was his Arsenal record, but he said, “I wanted every player to come and celebrate with me because it takes every player on the pitch to make the opportunities to score.”
How eloquent, how elegant, how peculiarly French. And then he said again he was lost for words, over ze moon.
The record Henry broke was the 185 goals scored by Ian Wright from 1991 to 1998.
But whereas Henry’s 186 from 1999 to now has taken 303 matches, 15 more than Wright, there is no comparison in the style of the two men.
Wright was a poacher supreme, a volatile, bubbly, predatory creature of the goalmouth. Henry is a converted winger who uses space across the width of the pitch and has Olympian swiftness, plus the vision both to score and to create for others.
Dennis Bergkamp, who has played alongside both men, said this season that Henry was the complete footballer but that he had never expected Wright’s record to be surpassed.
Arsene Wenger, who brought Henry to Arsenal and persuaded him to move in off the wing, said Tuesday, “I, too, thought the record of Ian Wright would be there for eternity.”
Wenger’s next trick is to try to keep Henry, 28, at Arsenal.
The club moves next season into a new stadium, and the costs hamper team building. Henry is the subject of tempting offers to go to a club – Barcelona, for example – where he might win the Champions League.
All he would say on Tuesday was that the speculation was not of his choosing, and “every time I step onto the pitch, I play with my heart.”
Heart and soul, and a great deal of precious talent.