Longtime friends turn temporary foes as Thierry Henry's Monaco host Patrick Vieira's Nice
Once teammates for club and country, former French heroes will face off against each other - as rival managers who will no longer be able to influence games in quite the masterly way they used to as players
Let nobody mistake Monaco versus Nice for a friendly derby, one of the managers says about to sample it for the first time from the technical area.
For all its luxurious setting - on the Cote D’Azur, the most prized real estate on the Mediterranean - this a rivalry that looks, sounds and feels fierce, insists Thierry Henry, who takes the role of host on Wednesday night, and of underdog.
Henry played in his first Monaco-Nice match at 17, promoted to Monaco’s first team from the club’s admired academy in August 1994 by one Arsene Wenger. It was his senior debut, and surprisingly, Monaco lost 2-0 at home to a freshly promoted Nice.
On Wednesday evening, Henry, 41, can cross a threshold in his new career as up-and-coming manager if his Monaco, stuck in the Ligue 1 relegation zone, hold off Nice and give him a fourth successive game unbeaten - the kind of momentum he has not yet been able to gather in his challenging first three months of management.
It is a hard ask against neighbours who could, with a win, jump to fifth in the table, and have acquired some the determined, competitive characteristics Nice last summer hoped their own new young manager might impart to them.
He is Patrick Vieira, 42, and on his first go at elite management in a major European league.
Henry versus Vieira. Now that is a special derby, a meeting of friends united forever by their exhilarating adventures together as players. For periods in the 2000s, both were peerless in their positions, Vieira an imposing central midfielder, Henry the most effective goalscorer his country, France, ever had.
They won the World Cup, France’s first, in 1998. Brought together by Wenger at Arsenal, they were leaders of The Invincibles, Premier League champions who went through an entire season undefeated. They were roommates for club and country, trusted advisers through career choices - including going into management - and transfer dilemmas.
“The respect I have for Pat the player is huge,” Henry says, “the respect I have for him as human being is even greater.”
That respect took root on the Cote D’Azur. Henry recalls how, when he was an aspiring Monaco apprentice quarter of a century ago, he would hear talk of a phenomenal young footballer up the coast at Cannes.
“Then I played against him,” Henry tells, “and I realised, ‘Okay, it’s true what they’ve all been saying about this Vieira’.”
Vieira was made captain of Cannes, then of the top division, at the age of 19.
He and Henry have been in touch regularly this season, and, just after this fixture, initially scheduled for December, was postponed - because of political street protests spreading across France, even to its wealthiest coastal corner - they ended up meeting, chatting over the challenges they faced in their new careers. Thoughts were turning to the winter transfer window.
Vieira’s priority? Someone to solve goalscoring problems, and perhaps an exit for Mario Balotelli, Vieira’s former teammate at Inter Milan and Manchester City but now a non-scoring problem striker with whom the manager has had a difficult relationship. It hardly needs stating that Vieira is not the first manager to have reached that point with Balotelli.
Henry’s urgent need? Some experience. For that, January has brought a star recruit. Into the battle against the drop - alarming for a Monaco who were French champions in 2017 - comes Cesc Fabregas, a World Cup winner, signed from Chelsea and impressive in his Ligue 1 debut, Sunday’s 1-1 draw at Marseille.
Fabregas, 31, may be fresh to French football, but he will know instinctively how important Wednesday night’s game feels to both coaches. He played for Arsenal alongside Henry and Vieira as a 16-year-old, He inherited Vieira’s number four jersey when the midfielder moved on.
Henry, who took over from Leonardo Jardim in October, insists this derby is not just about the heroes on the touchline. He is right.
Come Wednesday evening, when Nice fans, who traditionally cover the short journey to the Stade Louis II on a cavalcade of motorbikes, loudly play up the stereotype of their earthy values against the privilege of wealthy Monaco, the men in the technical areas will be just two actors.
They will be a little detached and no longer able to influence games in quite the masterly way they used to as players. That takes getting used to.
It may be something they talk over when they find a quiet spot to have dinner together, after their duel on the Riviera is done.
Updated: January 16, 2019 08:28 AM