Soccer

Column: At Arsenal, nostalgia is a dangerous thing

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Not only is nostalgia not what it used to be, its beguiling powers of deception can be dangerous, too. The desire to relive emotions long faded can make one do foolish things - like going to see Deep Purple in concert, a mistake I've made, or believe that Thierry Henry and Arsenal are still a match made in soccer heaven.

Often, the outcome is disappointment. Listening to rock's one-time loudest band reheat ''Smoke on the Water'' in Paris in 2010 for what must have been its umpteenth time provided only an empty aftertaste of the musical feast I could only imagine Purple must have served up in its heyday in the 1970s.

Likewise, nothing truly good can come from Arsenal's greatest player pulling on its red and white shirt again, likely as early as next Monday against Leeds in the FA Cup third round. Just as Purple now sounds infinitely better recorded than live, the only genuinely satisfying way to appreciate Henry these days is by watching YouTube videos from when the French striker was in his prime, running rings around defenses in his eight glorious years at Arsenal until he moved to Barcelona in 2007.

Fabulous memories. To single out any one of Henry's club-record 226 goals is to do an injustice to the others, although, if pressed, I'd chose his back-heel through the legs of Charlton defender Jonathan Fortune and past 'keeper Dean Kiely in 2004, in the penultimate game of Arsenal's record unbeaten run of 49 matches. Such audacity, improvisation, quick thinking and upper-body strength from Henry as Fortune clambered all over him. Sublime.

But flashbacks from yesteryear are no substitute for smart planning. Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger is borrowing Henry for six or so weeks from Major League Soccer's New York Red Bulls because he has gotten his recruitment policy all wrong, being too tightfisted with the London club's money and leaving himself short-handed.

Henry's return will doubtless wring a few happy tears from nostalgic Arsenal fans, but leaning on a 34-year-old, however fondly remembered for his previous 370 club appearances, for help in a league so damagingly physical and intensely competitive is a sign of weakness, not strength. It's an SOS, not a last hurrah.

You wouldn't catch Alex Ferguson bringing back the likes of Ruud van Nistelrooy, who scored 150 goals for him, because the Man United manager makes sure that he doesn't need to. Chelsea's squad is sufficiently stocked with players who can find the net that manager Andre Villa-Boas felt comfortable letting Henry's former France teammate Nicolas Anelka transfer this month to Shanghai Shenhua in China.

Wenger, of course, spun this positively.

''We will have Thierry for January and in February. Then he will go back to the United States. I am sure during these two months he will be a massive asset to the team in the dressing room and on the pitch. He can be relaxed, not under too much pressure and be a tremendous help to the team,'' said the Frenchman who first recruited Henry from Juventus in 1999.

The scorer of 14 goals, the second-highest MLS total, for the Red Bulls last season may still be able to conjure a useful strike for Arsenal here and there. In the process, Henry may help show that the gulf in standards between MLS and European soccer isn't that huge, after all, as American midfielder Landon Donovan also proved this week by slotting straight into Everton's starting lineup in the first match of his latest loan from the Los Angeles Galaxy before the MLS starts a new season in March.

Aside from Ferguson's United, which visits Arsenal's Emirates Stadium on Jan. 22, the London club's Premier League opponents over the next five weeks include newly promoted Swansea, relegation zone clubs Bolton and Blackburn, and mid-table Sunderland - the only one of those four to have scored more goals than it has conceded this season.

Those lesser teams will know that Henry still has enough quality and intelligence to cause them problems, although it's more of a stretch to imagine that Ferguson will be unduly worried, even with his squad shot with holes by injuries.

Arsenal also hosts London rival Tottenham on Feb. 26, which could be an emotional send-off for Henry if his stay lasts that long, but that has yet to be decided. In announcing the loan, Arsenal said Friday the duration was guaranteed for the moment only until the team's Champions League trip to AC Milan on Feb. 15.

Henry, wisely, sought to dampen expectations and stuck to the Arsenal party line that he will only be filling a short-term gap left by forwards Gervinho of Ivory Coast and Marouane Chamakh of Morocco, while they represent their countries at the Africa Cup of Nations.

There wasn't a peep, of course, in Arsenal's statement about why Wenger has failed to buy a reliable, long-term understudy for Robin van Persie, his top-scoring Dutch striker whose past injuries generate concerns he could break down again if overused.

''I am not coming here to be a hero or prove anything. I am just coming here to help. People have to understand that,'' Henry said. ''I'll be on the bench most of the time. If I can make the bench that is!''

If not, well, there are always those highlight reels to watch and rewatch. To be enjoyed with a Deep Purple soundtrack.

Ah, those were the days.

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John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jleicester(at)ap.org or follow him at twitter.com/johnleicester

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