Juve ain’t seen nothing yet

THIERRY HENRY has the insouciant air of someone who would ordinarily consider revenge beneath him, but when he returns to Juventus tonight, there is more at stake than simply Arsenal’s Champions League future.

Henry may now be indelibly linked with Arsenal red, but for seven unhappy months in 1999 he was bedecked in Juve black and white. It was a troubled time, ended mercifully when Arséne Wenger, who had first spotted his potential as a teenager while in charge at Monaco, brought him to north London for £10.5million.

Henry is dignified enough not to berate his former employers for their shoddy treatment of him during his brief stay.

The most he was willing to offer on Saturday, after engineering a 5-0 rout of Aston Villa, was that he had “a good time there”, but that is a rose-tinted view of one of the darkest periods of his career. The Frenchman was shunted onto the left wing by first Marcello Lippi and then Carlo Ancelotti, before Wenger famously convinced him on a plane journey back from Italy that he was wasted on the flank and deserved to wear the number nine shirt.

Henry has achieved too much since then to remain bitter about his spell in Serie A, but the one thing that has eluded him is a winning return to the Stadio delle Alpi.

The 28-year-old has made just one trip back to Italy’s industrial north as a player, and he did not enjoy it. It came in 2002, at the Champions League second group stage, when Arsenal’s future in the tournament was already hanging by a thread.

They needed a win in Italy and Deportivo La Coruna to beat Bayer Leverkusen to stand any chance of progression, but their fate was sealed when the Spaniards handed in their team-sheet.

“Both ourselves and Juventus were practically out,” said Henry. “Then we saw that Deportivo had put their Z team on the pitch, so we knew Leverkusen were going to win.

“They went 2-0 up early and ended up winning 3-1, and teams never win at Deportivo. It made it hard for us and Juve and it was a strange game.”

The surreal air was emphasised by the yawning gaps on the Stadio delle Alpi’s soulless concrete terraces. Barely 8,000 turned out to see a game which was eventually settled by Marcelo Zalayeta’s late, meaningless goal. It will be different tonight as Arsenal attempt to progress to the Champions League semi-finals for the first time in their history. His side may be perked by a 2-0 first-leg lead, but Wenger has already warned his young team-mates that the ultras on the Curva Sud will concoct a pressure-cooker atmosphere.

However, where there is Henry, there is hope. Arsenal’s captain has shrugged off the speculation surrounding his future and is, by his own admission, in the form of his life.

Villa’s defenders were teased, taunted and tormented by Henry’s performance last Saturday, which deserved to yield more than the two goals he scored. But then, as the man himself observed, perfection is an abstract pursuit.

“I think no one can be perfect and no one can reach perfection. You try to aim for that but there is always going to be room for improvement. That is why I say even when you win 5-0 there will always be some bad stuff that happens in a game.

“That is what I think about when I go home. I don’t think about what we have done well: I’m always trying to think about stuff that we could do better, but I don’t have to watch a tape of the game. I am in the game so I remember what happens. If a player has to watch a tape to remember what happened in a game - well I don’t think that’s a good sign.”

Even Henry might be tempted to watch a re-run of tonight’s trip down memory lane, if Arsenal hold their nerve and hold off the anticipated Juventus onslaught. But victory would also bring valediction for Thierry Henry.

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