BERLIN (AP) – The moment that might well define what has been a turbulent Barclays Premier League season for Arsenal Football Club and manager Arsene Wenger is summed up by a simple scoreline: 8-2. When it happened, in August at Old Trafford, it was so extraordinary that statisticians had to scurry to the record books and wind back more than a century to find when anything quite so calamitous had happened. Manchester United inflicted a wound that was as extremely rare as it was extremely damaging.
"I'd 8-2 be an Arsenal fan" is the joke that has done the rounds for months since, leading to Sunday's rematch in London (10:30 a.m. ET on FOX). How far the mighty had fallen. It wasn't so long ago that this particular team, under the guidance of this particular coach, had gone an entire Premier League season unbeaten. Critics were quick to point out that something like that never would have happened to the all-conquering side, when the likes of Thierry Henry were on the rampage in the colors of Arsenal.
Really? As it happens, something like that does in fact lurk somewhere in a dark place in a bit of Henry's memory he would rather forget. It was a sunny February afternoon in 2001, and Manchester United hosted Arsenal in a Premier League match at Old Trafford. United took the lead, only for Henry to strike back with a clever flick to equalize. So far, so normal. Only what followed was a harrowing implosion that bears comparison with the 8-2. United hit top gear, Arsenal fell apart, and the Red Devils won 6-1. Wenger's Gunners returned to London, tails firmly between their legs.
There is no doubt the older version of Henry, now back at his favorite club for a second stint after a loan period was agreed upon with the New York Red Bulls, will be an influential figure around the camp and in the dressing room as Arsenal prepares to rendezvous with United for the first time since that 8-2 match.
He can tell them a reassuring story, too. The team that suffered the 6-1 drubbing got a fair measure of revenge the following season. There was, understandably, a lot of anxiety when the teams crossed swords again, to the extent that fans were dreading United's visit. Arsenal had been in awful form, and when Paul Scholes gave the Red Devils the lead, it was easy to fear the worst. That man Henry won the game late on for Arsenal, though, and there was an extra twist as both his goals were served up on a plate by his French teammate Fabien Barthez, who kept goal for United that day with all the finesse of a clown wearing a blindfold.
That Arsenal vintage went on to win the Premier League. Just to add icing to the cake, the victory that confirmed that honor took place, poetically, at Old Trafford in May 2002. During that era, every game between these two clubs was loaded with significance, as they were head-to-head rivals for the title each season. Nobody else seemingly was even close. How things have changed.
Henry is a doubt to play a part in Sunday's showdown as he has been troubled this week by a calf strain. But whether on the pitch or on the sideline, he has a wealth of experience in this fixture to pass on to try to inspire his current teammates. And they are in need of some encouragement on the back of a dip in form that has seen them drop out of the Champions League positions after they worked so hard in the aftermath of the 8-2 rout to get into the top four.
He can tell them about how it feels to score the match-winner against United, as he did on several occasions. Henry has a couple of particularly memorable ones. In 2000, at the start of his Arsenal career, he scored one of the all-time great Premier League goals with a strike that was ridiculous in its audacity. Receiving the ball outside the box with his back to goal, he flicked the ball up for himself and swiveled to crash a spectacular volley over the goalkeeper's head. It was, arguably, the moment that sealed his status in England as something out of the ordinary. That goal signified what made him stand out from the crowd.
In 2007, his final season before leaving for Barcelona, Henry scored another meaningful goal against United, a stoppage-time winner to give the Emirates Stadium its first spine-tingling moment. As he celebrated, the new ground felt like "home" for the first time after the club moved from its beloved but smaller place 'round the corner at Highbury.
As many clubs who move grounds discover, constructing the arena is one thing, but building an atmosphere -- and a feeling of belonging -- is something else entirely. That can be generated only by creating memories, stuff to go into the history books, the moments to make the place special. Henry was responsible for one of those with his fairy-tale comeback goal in the FA Cup third round on Jan. 9 against Leeds. How he would love to write yet another story against an old foe.