Vol. 5 Num 694 Sat. May 13, 2006  

FIFA World Cup
Germany 2006

Can Henry rise to the occasion?

Thierry Henry might be the most versatile forward at this year's World Cup -- and among the most feared. The France striker scores with regularity, assists on dozens of goals and rarely is injured. His speed and fitness mean defenders never are afforded a moment of rest.

"There are not many players like him," France coach Raymond Domenech said. "He is a striker, a winger and a left midfielder. You can't just replace him like for like."

While Zinedine Zidane remains the nation's good luck charm, Domenech's comments suggest Henry has replaced aging playmaker Zidane as the main man.

"There are many options," Domenech said. "But Henry is the main one for us."

Henry, Arsenal's all-time leading scorer with 214 goals, hopes France's 2006 World Cup run lasts longer than four years ago.

In 2002, he played just 115 minutes, scored no goals and received a red card after 25 minutes for a wild two-footed lunge in a 0-0 draw against Uruguay. France was eliminated in the first round without scoring a goal.

"I am desperate to make up for that, to erase the bad memories I have from 2002," Henry said. "I want to do it in Germany."

At the 2004 European Cham-pionship he missed an easy header as defending champion France lost 1-0 to eventual champion Greece in the quarterfinals.

Top scorer in the English Premier League with 27 goals, Henry was also the Premiership's top marksman in 2002, 2004 and 2005 -- and was chosen the league's player of the year for a record third time by English soccer writers.

The 28-year-old might never win either accolade again.

Henry could be playing his last game for Arsenal against the team that so badly wants to sign him. On May 17, Arsenal plays Barcelona at Stade de France in the Champions League final.

Ten days later, Henry will play at the national stadium again when France opposes Mexico in the first of three World Cup warm-up games.

Henry will look to inch closer to French great Michel Platini's total of 41 international goals with matches against Denmark on May 31 and China on June 7.

Henry and fellow striker David Trezeguet both have 31 goals. Henry has taken 76 matches to reach that total, Trezeguet only 61. But Henry has set up many more for his French teammates, mirroring his two-faceted ability to both score and create for Arsenal.

"We are lucky to have two world-class strikers," Domenech said. "Traditionally, strikers approach their peak at 28 or 29, so hopefully this will be the case."

When France struggled in its World Cup qualifying group, Henry scored one of the most important goals of his career to secure a crucial 1-0 win at Ireland.

Picking up a loose ball some 25 yards from the net, he took one step forward and curled the ball over the shoulder of Ireland goalkeeper Shay Given, who was beaten diving in a full stretch.

"The whole team felt a weight lift off its shoulders," Henry said after the Ireland win.

But that goal is not in Henry's Top 10, which features stunning solo scores against Real Madrid and Liverpool, and his famed spin, flick and looping shot against Manchester United that left goalkeeper Fabien Barthez grasping thin air.

But in terms of sheer importance it makes the it alongside his semifinal tying goal against Portugal at the 2000 European Championship, and his successful penalty shootout kick against Italy in the quarterfinals of the 1998 World Cup.

Both years, France went on to win the competition.

Henry perhaps needed that goal against Ireland as much as France did.

Criticized for a lack of offence, Henry heard claims he had not produced a strong performance for Les Bleus since November 2004, when France won 3-0 in Germany. That night, even German fans applauded a moment of astonishing skill when he gathered a high ball at midfield, and with Christian Worns all over him, flicked the ball over Worns' head, spun round and sped toward the net before setting up Trezeguet.

French fans will be hoping for more of the same next month.

A fringe player in 1998, a peripheral performer in 2002, Henry wants the 2006 tournament to be his stamp as a world beater -- joining Zidane as a French sporting legend.

"Players of that standard are always asking themselves questions," former France coach Jacques Santini said. "This is because they want to be excellent all the time."

President of the World Cup Organising Committee Franz Beckenbauer poses next to a giant stone replica of "Teamgeist" used as a fountain on Friday. The fountain ball is made of granite and weighs some 11.3 tons. PHOTO: AFP