The French wonder striker had left Arsenal to win the most prestigious club trophy with Barcelona
Football is a collective sport. 11 men on each side of the pitch and, in the end, "the German always win", like Gary Lineker said. The sport has changed since the English international pronounced those words, even though Germany are the current holders of the World Cup and Bundesliga among the best leagues on the planet. Players are being more and more selfish, focused on their careers, their sponsors, the money they can possibly earn and the number of followers they might accumulate. All that counts are the trophies, collective and individual, the bonuses for winning them and the attention of the media. A shocker for Lineker's generation, a normal thing for today's youngsters.
Between the two era, there is one man who compiled the two: the love of a shirt, a team, a manager, and the chase for glory. After having marked Arsenal's history, French legend Thierry Henry made a difficult choice, a personal one, but more than justified: he went to Barcelona to try and fulfill his dream of lifting the most prestigious silverware there is for a European footballer: the Champion's League. Through a long journey, made of highs and lows, Henry finally reached his goal in 2009. Let's go back on three crucial moments of his career, at the foundation of his eventual success.
1997-98: the first experience (AS Monaco)
In 1997, Thierry Henry was one of the most promising young French players, just like his friend and teammate, David Trézéguet. The two youngsters really started with AS Monaco at the same time. Henry had played more and more throughout the anterior season, getting closer to a starter position, and playing a few European games, replacing Brazilian Sonny Anderson. After Anderson left for FC Barcelona, the spot for a starting striker was available. Aged 20, hugely talented and eager to improve, Henry became an option of choice for Jean Tigana. Although he didn't play as a starter, Victor Ikpeba being the first choice with either Henry or Trézéguet or sometime both, the French winger did start 17 games and came up 11 times from the bench.
Alongside him then, was David Trézéguet (19 years old), who had arrived from Argentina where he was formed. Another young promise for French football. Together they made the whole of Ligue 1's defences suffer. One is very comfortable in the air, threatening in the box and very intelligent as for positionning himself, the other is quick, unpredictable, and has a very unique feature: a bent shot from the inside of the right foot with which many goalkeepers had nightmares. This lethal duo carried Monaco to a third place in the league, alongside Nigerian Victor Ikpeba, a worse performance than the title Monaco had clinched the year before, but a very endearing start for the magical duo. That season, Henry scored 4 goals in 30 games, Trézéguet 18 in 27 games. But the real breakthrough for 'Titi' was on the European stage.
For his first experience in the Champion's League, Thierry Henry got to the semi-finals with the team from the principality. That is where he really shined. He revealed himself to Europe scoring 7 goals in 9 games. A double and an assist in a 4-0 against Leverkusen at Louis II Stadium, then a goal against Belgian side Lierse, 2 goals against Sporting Lisbon, another goal at Leverkusen, and a final one in the very spectacular semi-final against Juventus. Despite scoring a goal at Stadio Delle Alpi in a 4-1 loss, Monaco ended up being knocked out after winning the second leg 3-2, with Henry's goal. For a first ever chance to fight among European best clubs, it was a success. That gave Henry an eagerness to come back at such a stage, and why not further. He stayed one more season at Monaco, not knowing the same success as during the previous season. In an attempt to climb up the ladder, he joined Juventus in the winter of 1999. Unsuccessful as well, despite the transfer's high fee (11.5 million euros) and the game time for Henry (20 games, 3 goals). He considered not to be respected by Juventus' CEO, Luciano Moggi. Also, he didn't like the way he was used, on the left wing with a big defensive role. To come back in the centre and score goals, and to get a shot at winning the Champion's League, Henry thought he should join the one that brought him to the high level, former Monaco manager (until 1994), Arsène Wenger.
2005-06: a turning point
In the summer of 1999, Thierry Henry signed for Arsenal, embracing a new career as a striker, and leaving his old role as a winger in the closet. In London, Henry felt great, accompanied by other French companions he lifted the 1998 World Cup with: Robert Pirès and Patrick Vieira. He arrived in a club built for him, playing quickly upfront and highliting the speed trait of the youg man from Les Ulis. Arsène Wenger, who had followed his progression in Monaco, thought his qualities would be put to a better use if Henry was playing in a striker position. Although he was young and he had to improve his headers, his speed and his scoring instinct would quickly impress the Premier League, and the Prince would soon become King.
How not to quote, for example, the 2003/04 season, the season of the Invincibles. During that period, Arsenal didn't lose a single game and ended up lifting the Premier League trophy, after winning 26 games and drawing 12. The top scorer was no other than Thierry Henry, at the peak of his form, who managed to beat the keeper 30 times in the 37 games he played. Rarely injured, lethal in front of the goal, leader on and off the pitch, Thierry Henry was building his legend. And although he had gone through a whole lot of emotions, the best, the most cruel as well was still to come. The 2005/06 season wasn't particularly brilliant for the Gunners. At the end of a long and painful season, with 11 losses in the Premier League, Arsenal achingly reached the fourth place, synonym of a Champion's League playoff the next season. But one of the reasons for this poor performance - given the recent standards of the club - was their incredible run in the C1.
Indeed, Thierry Henry and his friends reached that year the final in Paris, in Stade de France, against a rising European power, FC Barcelona. At that time, the Blaugranas were enjoying the influence of Dutch superstar Frank Rijkaard, whose vision had enabled Barça to find again its identity and clinch a few titles in La Liga. Also, with Ronaldinho, Deco, Messi, Eto'o the artists of Camp Nou had reached the final. In front of his public, his crowd, his family, it was the ideal moment for Henry to shine and get a trophy he had always dreamt of. Unfortunately, fate got in his way, and Lehmann's sending off didn't help. With 10 men, Arsenal managed to score a goal thanks to a Sol Campbell header on an assist from Thierry Henry. But the Blaugrana will was stronger, and the Catalans ended up scoring a two goals, thanks to Eto'o and the Brazilian right-back Juliano Belletti, to win their second Champion's League after the one they won in Wembley in 1992. So close, yet so far, Thierry Henry faced one of the biggest disappointments in his career. But at that moment he knew he needed something more, that extra strength that made Barça win that day. He would move to Catalonia, to finally fulfill his wish to lift this beloved trophy.
2008-09: The rightful reward
It is not easy for a footballer in his prime to leave his nest and try something different. You have no guarantee it will work. When Henry left Arsenal for Barcelona, for 24 million euros in the summer of 2007, a few month before the Gunners took possession of their brand new Emirates Stadium. Of course, there are worse options than joining Ronaldinho, Deco, Messi, Eto'o, Zambrotta, Thuram, Xavi or Puyol. And 'Titi' did arrive as a first team choice for Rijkaard. His first season was good, not extraordinary as Barcelona failed to win La Liga, ending up at 3rd place, and reaching Champion's League and Copa del Rey semi-finals. Henry still scored 19 goals in 47 games in all competitions, making him a good addition to a Blaugrana side that was about to become unbeatable.
One man changed it all. His name: Pep Guardiola. The type of coaches that values the work of players like Henry. The kind of guy that made of Henry a great winger during his time in the Catalonian capital. The French player's second season in Barça would be unforgettable, just like the one of the 'Invicibles' at Arsenal. 19 goals in a La Liga season the Blaugranas won without doubting at any moment, 9 points ahead of Real Madrid and with only 5 losses. Henry scored 19 goals putting him level at 6th position with Almeria's Alvaro Negredo, in a ranking dominated by two monsters: Diego Forlan (Atlético, 32 goals) and Henry's teammate Samuel Eto'o (30 goals). But once again, the biggest emotion was on the European stage. After overcoming a relatively easy group (Sporting CP, FC Basel and Shakhtar), Barcelona made a statement. "This year, no one can beat us", is what we could take from the two large wins in the last 16 round and in the quarter-finals, against Lyon (1-1, 5-2) and FC Bayern (4-0, 1-1). Only one team could have reduced Henry's dream to pieces. It was Chelsea. But Iniesta came out of the Bridge's storm to throw the Blaugranas in the final, the second for 'Titi'.
This time, no one could take it from him. Not even another former rival of his, Manchester United. In Rome, the duel seemed promising. And it was excellent. Samuel Eto'o, unstoppable that season, gave a quick lead to Barcelona (10 minutes in). Then, the tension was high. Chances from both sides, a slight domination from Guardiola's men and a trophy closer and closer to Henry's hands. Another genius would settle the deal and send the Frenchman into the promise land. Leo Messi, on an improbable header from a Xavi cross, touched Rome's sky and sent the ball into Van der Sar's net. There it was. All those moments during which he fought so hard, all those times in which he dreamt about this indescribable emotion had come to an end. Henry could finally enjoy the taste of a Champion's League win. Something a football player is chasing after sometimes during his whole career. Henry didn't, he made the right choice at the right time. Yet, as the competitor he is, and the proud man he's always been, this soft and sweet taste of lifting the Champion's League trophy had a bitter note. He would have loved for that moment to happen with an Arsenal shirt on.
Therefore, despite having won the competition with Barcelona, Henry surely wishes that Arsenal won it someday. So he's not the only one to ever taste such a joy, so he can share it with the one that made him come to Monaco, and saw him grew up, becoming an authentic legend both in France and overseas: Arsène Wenger. And, most importantly, he surely wishes no more Gunners had to leave the club like he did, to get a shot at winning. His position of pundit in British TV is clearly not as stressful as the one he had for so many years. But for once, his heart will be torn and his feelings mixed when the time for the Arsenal - Barça Champion's League clash comes. A good chance to remember the good times he had in both clubs. The tears he shred, and the smiles he displayed. One game that sums up pretty well his career, made of tough choices and exceptionnal moments. That's all we hope for this game.