ARSENAL vs LEEDS UNITED
THE SHOCK homecoming of Arsenal’s favourite son Thierry Henry will inspire his successor Robin van Persie to raise his own game to even loftier heights, according to Gunners great Martin Keown.
Henry (inset) is in line to make an emotional second debut for the club in tonight’s FA Cup third round clash with Championship promotion hopefuls Leeds, having signed a short-term loan deal until the end of February.
The presence of a man who scored a club record 226 goals in 370 appearances before departing in the summer of 2007 raises the possibility of unsettling Van Persie, who, like Henry, has become Arsenal’s talisman and captain.
But Keown, who won three Premier League titles and three FA Cups during two spells in north London, is confident the prolific Dutchman, who has netted 21 in 26 games already this season, will respond positively.
“I think he’s now at the level of maturity where he will enjoy having Henry around,” said Keown, now an analyst for ESPN, which will exclusively broadcast tonight’s match.
“Robin was in the shadow of Dennis Bergkamp and Henry but has come out of that and is now a star in his own right, and I think he might enjoy sharing that limelight for just a couple of months. Van Persie – listening to what coaches who have worked with him have said – used to be difficult to handle. That’s not unusual, a lot of the best players are. He’s grown in maturity, he relishes being the main man, and I think he’ll embrace it rather than push it away.
“It will bring a level of excitement to his game. He will probably want to prove he is the top dog. That’s healthy, that’s what you should want to do.
“I remember playing with Ian Wright, and all he was interested in was the headlines the next day. He wouldn’t settle for one goal; he wanted three. I think it’s in all the top goalscorers; they want to be the No1 man.”
Arsenal have appeared careful not to over-hype the return of Henry, who had been training with the club during the Major League Soccer close season, with his 34-year-old legs unlikely to scorch defences as they once did.
Keown is mindful too of putting pressure on his former colleague, but cannot hide his belief that the French World Cup winner still has enough in his armoury to justify manager Arsene Wenger’s enduring faith.
“He’s an intelligent man, an intelligent passer of the ball,” added Keown. “We’ve seen it with [evergreen Manchester United star Ryan] Giggs; the very good players adapt and find a way to be successful. I watched him in training six or seven weeks ago and he still looked very sharp to me.”
ESPN football analyst Martin Keown was speaking ahead of the sports media company’s live and exclusive coverage of three FA Cup third round matches, including Arsenal v Leeds United (7pm tonight).