IT just had to be. Thierry Henry, so often the scourge of Leeds United in the past, last night came out of what has effectively been semi-retirement in the USA to fire Arsenal into the FA Cup fourth round.
The French international, brought off the bench by Arsene Wenger midway through the second half, broke United’s hearts with a typically clinical finish to beat Andy Lonergan with just 12 minutes remaining.
In finally breaking the bold resistance of the Elland Road club, the striker took his tally of goals against Leeds to a phenomenal 12 in as many outings and ensured it was a fairytale return for the loanee from New York Red Bulls.
More importantly, he settled a tie that until his late intervention seemed destined to heading for a replay at Elland Road.
Losing was harsh on hard-working United, who had clearly been sent out by Simon Grayson with the intention of frustrating their hosts.
With Luciano Becchio employed as a lone frontman and Danny Pugh providing a protective barrier in front of the back four, United’s tactics worked wonderfully well with it taking Arsenal 54 minutes to draw a save from Lonergan.
So impressive were Leeds, in fact, that they received a standing ovation from the 5,100 travelling fans at the final whistle.
It was deserved recognition for the endeavour and industry that had gone into their performance.
The key now, of course, is to ensure the same can be said after Saturday’s trip to Crystal Palace as Leeds look to build on their dramatic win over Burnley in the opening game of 2012.
Along with the tremendous defensive resolve shown against Arsenal, Grayson’s side could also point to the chances they created.
The best of those in the first half fell to Becchio, in the 24th minute, after Mika Vayrynen’s cross had been deflected into the Argentinian’s path.
However, despite being unmarked and just eight yards out, Becchio could only fire over.
Grayson’s response was to throw his arms up in the air in frustration, the United manager knowing that a big opportunity had been spurned.
Leeds’s boss experienced a similar feeling 14 minutes from time when Ramon Nunez could only shoot lamely into the hands of Wojciech Szczesny after the Gunners’ goalkeeper had mis-cued a clearance straight to the Honduran.
Even after Henry’s goal, Leeds kept creating chances with Ross McCormack heading straight at Szczesny after being picked out by Adam Clayton.
Then, in stoppage time, substitute Mikael Forssell brought a fine reflex save from Szczesny as the Arsenal defence frantically tried to get back.
It meant the passage to the fourth round belonged to the Gunners, who until Henry’s arrival off the bench had largely laboured in their attempts to unlock United’s defence.
Most of their efforts had been unimpressive with the visitors stifling tactics meaning the Premier League club were largely restricted to long-range efforts in the first half.
Andrei Arshavin, Aaron Ramsey and Mikel Arteta all tried their luck from distance but missed the target, and even when the Gunners did manage to work an opening inside the area Lonergan’s team-mates did a commendable job of protecting their goalkeeper.
Vayrynen was the first to avert the danger on 14 minutes when the Finnish midfielder threw himself at the ball as Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain shaped to shoot.
Tom Lees then did the same midway through the first half to ensure a fiercely hit effort from Ramsey was diverted away from danger to underline the determination running through the Leeds squad.
It was a similar story after the break, though by then Arsenal were finally able to test Lonergan’s goalkeeping skills.
His first save was a brilliant one-handed effort to keep out a low drive from Arteta, which the United goalkeeper then followed with a fine block to deny Oxlade-Chamberlain.
In between, Arshavin spurned another fine opportunity by chipping wide, so no wonder the arrival of Henry was greeted with such enthusiasm by the locals.
Arsenal’s supporters had, in fact, been so desperate to see their hero enter the fray that any activity in the technical area during the second half was greeted by all heads turning in that direction and a murmur of anticipation.
At one stage – and with the game still goalless – this led to the surreal sight of Michael Brown getting to his feet being cheered, surely the first time a former Spurs player has been given such an accolade, albeit by mistake.
Once Henry did come on, however, there was no mistaking his pedigree as the French striker took his Arsenal goal tally to 227 in 331 games with a typically cool finish.
It may not have been the ‘va va voom’ of his heyday but, nevertheless, the strike was enough to break Yorkshire hearts and ensure it is the Gunners who will host Aston Villa in the fourth round and not Leeds.
Arsenal: Szczesny; Coquelin (Yennaris 33), Squillaci, Koscelny, Miguel; Song, Ramsey; Arshavin, Arteta, Oxlade-Chamberlain (Walcott 68); Chamakh (Henry 68). Unused substitutes: Park, Benayoun, Ryo, Yennaris, Martinez.
Leeds United: Lonergan; Thompson, Lees, O’Dea, White; Pugh; Nunez (Forssell 82), Clayton, Vayrynen (Brown 60), Townsend; Becchio (McCormack 74). Unused substitutes: Bruce, Sam, Forssell, Parker, Taylor.
Referee: M Clattenburg (Tyne & Wear).