Thierry Henry will make an emotional return to Arsenal for Wednesday’s Champions League quarter-final, but the Barcelona striker could be forced to surrender the spotlight at the Emirates Stadium to his team-mate Lionel Messi.
Ever since the reigning European champions were paired with Henry’s former club, fans of the beautiful game have been licking their lips in anticipation of a rare meeting between two sides whose commitment to the sport’s purist principles is unmatched across the world.
Henry, who joined Barca in 2007, will be one of the most recognisable faces amongst a galaxy of stars in north London and he is guaranteed a rapturous reception from the Arsenal faithful.
But the France star, who won two Premier League titles, three FA Cups and scored a club-record 226 goals in 369 games for Arsenal, is far from certain to start after spending much of his time on the bench recently. It is a prospect that doesn’t unduly concern him.
“I’m not saying I won’t try to fight or whatever because that’s the way the game is. But I don’t want to play against Arsenal,” Henry said.
“Before the draw I said that I did not want to face Arsenal. To return home is strange and even more so in the quarter-finals of the Champions League.
“I’m very emotional, but also staying calm. It will be different because I spent seven years at Highbury and one at the Emirates and to see the people, the fans and the other employees at the club will be very strange.”
Like David Beckham, who struggled to make an impact as AC Milan lost on his reunion with Manchester United in the last round, Henry could find himself relegated to a sideshow anyway if Messi maintains his remarkable form during the two matches.
At times over the last eight months, the mesmerising Argentina forward has seemed to be staging his own goal of the season competition.
He already has 34 goals this term, including a recent stunning effort against Real Zaragoza, and he single-handedly destroyed Stuttgart as the holders cruised into the last 16.
As if that wasn’t enough to give Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger sleepless nights, Messi believes Arsenal’s open style of play will allow him even more space to flourish.
“At this stage of the tournament we’re not too concerned who we face, because to be the best you have to beat the best,” Messi said.
“If anything it suits us to be playing a side like Arsenal who give their players freedom to play without restrictions. I wouldn’t expect them to abandon that and employ different tactics to deal with us.”
Wenger is also sweating over the fitness of captain Cesc Fabregas after he suffered a knee injury in Saturday’s 1-1 draw at Birmingham.
Fabregas, who started his career alongside Messi in Barca’s youth academy, hopes to play despite severe bruising to his leg and knee, but his participation remains uncertain.
No matter who takes the field on Wednesday, the quality of play is likely to be the highest in Europe this season.
Barca swept their way to the treble last year with some breath-taking displays and Arsenal are no slouches themselves when it comes to entertaining the neutrals.
“There are similarities there in the way we play, the way we educate young players, the way we rely on young players and in the sense of belonging to the club,” Wenger said.
Barca coach Pep Guardiola agrees. “Since I took the job our play has been marked by brave, attacking football. Sometimes we’ve been bold and I think we’ve played audaciously,” he said.
“It’s a philosophy of football. Win or lose I want us to show who we are and what kind of football we believe in.”
Losing Andres Iniesta to a hamstring injury suffered in Saturday’s 1-0 win over Real Mallorca could disturb Barca’s midfield equilibrium, but the Catalans will take heart from the expected return of defender Gerard Pique from a knee problem.