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Saturday, Oct. 22, 2005

PREMIER REPORT

Henry confirms status as best player in Premier League


LONDON -- There can be little doubt that Chelsea has the best team in England, breaking records almost for fun. But for all its many qualities, Chelsea does not have the Premiership's best player, and the return of Thierry Henry in Arsenal's 2-0 win over Sparta Prague last Tuesday underlined his true greatness.

Christopher Davies

Arsene Wenger, the Arsenal manager, was worried that six weeks on the sidelines because of a groin injury would leave Henry "rusty" in his decision making.

Six minutes after coming on for the injured Jose Reyes, Henry controlled Kolo Toure's long pass while running on the back of his right foot with the sort of delicate control that has become his trademark. In the same movement he allowed the ball to bounce before scoring with a curling shot from 20 meters.

The "bend" on the ball was such that Sir Isaac Newton would have had to rethink his law of gravitation.

His second goal in the match saw him overtake Ian Wright as Arsenal's all-time leading scorer, his total of 186 coming in 302 matches.

Henry is both a great goalscorer and a scorer of great goals.

In fact, if there is a criticism of Henry it is that he can be too elaborate, at times almost not wanting to score a straightforward goal. He once said that the crowd "does not remember easy goals," and to this day we are not sure whether he was joking.

"If you look at the whole package, with what Thierry has, I don't think you can find that anywhere else," said team-mate Dennis Bergkamp. "You give him the ball in the right place, and his acceleration will take him past any defender."

Lilian Thuram of Juventus and France agrees.

"He may be the fastest man ever to lace up a football boot," he said. "No defender in the world can keep up with him."

Gianluca Vialli, the former Chelsea manager, was once asked how to stop Henry.

"Shoot him," he joked, but even less than fully fit, as he was in Prague, the Arsenal captain was unstoppable at times, his combination of speed and skill plus the ability to make the seemingly impossible look routine was surely what Pele had in mind when he christened the sport the "beautiful game."

When Henry arrived at Arsenal from Juventus for £10.5 million he was a young, raw forward -- more of a winger, in fact -- with Wenger converting him to a center-forward whose place in any football hall of fame should be guaranteed.

Andriy Shevchenko of AC Milan and Manchester United's Ruud van Nistelrooy can match Henry for goal scoring yet neither can raise the pulse as the Frenchman does.

Ronaldinho of Barcelona is probably the biggest rival to Henry in terms of excitement, the Brazilian playing the game with a smile that reflects the joy he gives spectators.

Frank Lampard of Chelsea is married to a Barcelona-born girl and he says of Ronaldinho: "We'll be sitting there watching Barcelona and Ronaldinho will collect the ball on the edge of his own penalty area.

"As he runs downfield he beats five players, nutmegs another, flicks the ball over his head and scores with a 30-yard volley. My wife asks me 'why don't you score goals like that?'

"I have to explain we are different types of player!"

There are fears Henry could join Barcelona next summer when his contract will have one more year to run.

In the meantime, even Chelsea, the richest club in the history of football since Roman Abramovich took over, can only look on in envy as the genius in boots scores more candidates for goal of the season.

FROM FAST TRACK to farce track -- the English Football Association may have sped up its disciplinary process, but when a combination of F.A. and FIFA red tape allows Chelsea's Michael Essien to escape the proper punishment for one of the worst fouls likely to be seen in 2005, it is the sports governors who bring the game into disrepute.

Referee Rob Styles is to be congratulated for informing the F.A. that, having reviewed Essien's horror challenge on Tal Ben Haim of Bolton last Saturday, he believed the yellow card should be upgraded to a red.

A similar incident occurred a year ago when Graham Poll's caution on Jamie Redknapp of Tottenham for a foul on Everton's Tim Cahill saw him eventually banned for three games by the F.A.

So what is the difference between Redknapp and Essien?

For years the F.A. has failed to observe FIFA's disciplinary regulations, which stipulate "any player dismissed . . . is to be automatically suspended from the next match . . . in no case can the decision of the referee be modified after a game . . ."

FIFA has been happy to turn a disciplinary blind eye and should have done more to ensure the F.A. adheres to the regulations of world football's ruling body.

Instead, FIFA has allowed the F.A. to carry on with claims of wrongful dismissal by clubs -- whereby a referee's decision can be changed -- but not allowing officials to make a similar decision.

Last weekend, Blackburn's Zura Khizanishvili was sent off at Liverpool for denying an opponent an obvious goalscoring opportunity.

Blackburn appealed and won the case with the player, on loan from Scottish champions Rangers, having his red card effectively wiped out.

But FIFA says a referee cannot make that decision.

In the opening game of the season Jermaine Jenas, then of Newcastle, was dismissed by Steve Bennett for a foul on Gilberto of Arsenal. Upon reviewing the video Bennett decided a yellow card would have been a more appropriate sanction, told the F.A. and a disciplinary commission rubber-stamped the referee's view.

Red to yellow and Jenas was given the green light to play in the next game.

FIFA was alerted and told the F.A. that there can be no retrospective downgrading of red cards by referees yet they still allowed the F.A. to do this.

The F.A. says it has been in correspondence with FIFA since then to clarify the disciplinary situation, concerned that replies from the governing body were too subjective.

After the Essien tackle the F.A. again tried to pin down FIFA and received a reply last Tuesday -- a day after Styles had agreed the yellow card should be upgraded -- and was finally convinced that a referee can no longer change his initial decision.

However, FIFA seems happy for the F.A. to do this when a club appeals.

This has led to confusion -- understandably so -- with supporters asking why the F.A. can change a referee's decision yet the official cannot do so himself.

It would be far better if FIFA instructed the F.A. that there must be no alterations to an on-field sanction made by the referee in any way. Not by the official or the FA.

There may be a sense of injustice when a player appears to be incorrectly sent off, but referees, like players, make human errors that are part of the game. This way there would be no gray area or confusion.

Essien's studs-showing lunge at Ben Haim could have broken the Israeli's leg. To receive just a caution for such an offense makes a mockery of justice when had the Ghanaian been sent off Chelsea could have appealed and the red card expunged if successful.

As clear as mud, and those running the English and world game should do better than leave many more questions than answers.

Christopher Davies covers Arsenal and the Republic of Ireland for the London Daily Telegraph.


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