HARRISON, N.J. – Try as he might to downplay the significance of the upcoming New York Red Bulls-Arsenal match, Thierry Henry will still be front and center when the opening whistle blows this weekend.
That is because it is quite possibly the last time that Henry will face his former club.
At his weekly press conference Thursday, Henry attempted to give his personal feelings toward Saturday’s expected sellout at Red Bull Arena (5 pm ET, ESPN2) minimal importance – something Red Bulls head coach Mike Petke predicted would happen just moments before. But listening to the prolific striker talk about how special it was for him to wear an Arsenal jersey earlier in his career made it hard to believe him when he said his focus was instead on next Wednesday’s road game against Real Salt Lake.
After all, it is not every day that Arsenal come to the United States to play a friendly – or even every decade.
“Wearing the shirt was a privilege for me,” Henry said ahead of Arsenal’s first stateside friendly in 25 years. “I’ve said I understood when I left and came back to play those seven or eight games that I played [on loan in 2011-12] how important it was to wear the shirt. For me, wearing the Arsenal shirt was the most important thing. It was unbelievable. I felt like a different man in that shirt.”
The closest Henry came to stating what kind of internal impact the match would have on him was by simply saying it would be “weird.” Of course, he has faced Arsenal before while in a Red Bulls uniform, leading New York to a 1-1 tie and the friendly tournament title at the 2011 Emirates Cup in London.
At his new home ground, Henry expects a lengthy, albeit not 90-minute, outing against the club that helped make his legend. Arsenal’s all-time leading goalscorer is expected to play 60 minutes for the Red Bulls, but it could be more depending upon how much energy is left in his tank.
“What I said to Thierry, and he agreed and he was good with it, which was nice, was come the 60th minute, I want to see how he feels,” said Petke. “He’s definitely not going to play 90. It all depends how he feels in the moment. If he’s running around and really enjoying it and feeling good, I might give him a little extra. If not, around the 60th-minute mark would be the most intelligent thing to do. We’ll see what happens.”
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As one would expect, Henry repeatedly stated his admiration for the renowned Premiership club that he helped lead to multiple Premier League, FA Cup and FA Community Shield titles, and that high respect was reciprocated from multiple members of Arsenal’s camp, including manager Arsene Wenger.
“He had all the top qualities as a football player when he started at 17 years old at Monaco,” said Wenger, who coached Henry for years and still has a relationship with him. “Now he’s been playing 17 years at the top level. Not many players last at the top level of competition.
"He has the physique, he has the technical qualities and he’s a very bright guy. He analyzes very quickly and has a good combination between being focused and relaxed. That’s the most important quality at the top level -- that high level of focus and being relaxed as well, the right mixture -- and he has that.”
Pleasantries may have been exchanged at length on Thursday, but the two parties will have to compete against each other this weekend.
“He’s a legend at the club,” said Wenger. “When I put him at center forward, he told me, ‘Look, I can’t score goals,’ and for somebody who can’t score goals, he has done quite well. He’s a legend of the club, and if you ask every Arsenal fan who is the player of Arsenal, they would tell you Thierry Henry.
"He has a statue at the front of the stadium, and I think there is only two or three statues in front of the stadium, so that tells you what kind of impact he has made.”
It is the kind of impact that will last more than a lifetime, regardless of how good he might be against the Gunners on Saturday.
Franco Panizo covers the New York Red Bulls for MLSsoccer.com. He can be reached by e-mail at Franco8813@gmail.com.