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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 15 October 2018

Thierry Henry: the French legend plotting his country's downfall as part of Belgium's coaching staff

A World Cup winner with France 20 years ago, Henry is imparting his expert advice on finishing to Lukaku and Hazard rather than Mbappe and Griezmann as Belgium prepare to face France for a place in Sunday's final

Thierry Henry’s presence at the 2018 World Cup has been as discreet as he can make it, but he cannot control all the cameramen turning their lenses on him, all the press conference enquiries about him or indeed, the exuberance of some Belgian players. Vincent Kompany hugged Henry and lifted him off the ground at the end of exhilarating victory against Brazil that propelled Belgium to this evening’s meeting with France.

Partly Henry’s desire to keep a low-profile is a natural instinct. He was a dazzling footballer, a serial champion with Arsenal, Barcelona and his country, but sometimes found the limelight and scrutiny that came with the fame a little uncomfortable. Partly, it’s to do with protocol, and a sense of proportion. He has a specific job on the Belgium coaching staff, to coach the attacking players and counsel on strategies; it is part-time role, outside his broadcasting work in English television, and his rank in the Belgian staff hierarchy is well beneath that of manager Roberto Martinez.

And partly, the discretion is about mystique. Henry, scorer of goals that frequently had his audiences asking "How did he do that?" when he was a player, works with Belgian strikers on the fine details of finishing; he is there to divulge secrets, and keep those secrets in a closed circle.

Yet now the hidden Henry, who has hinted at his ambitions for a senior management career one day, is about to spend an evening as just about the most scrutinised third-down-the-pecking-order coach in history. Belgium v France for a place in a World Cup final, is already being labelled the "Thierry Henry Derby".

Henry remains France’s record goalscorer, with 51 goals from his 123 internationals over 13 of the most fruitful years of his country’s football history. He won a World Cup and appeared in another final; he won a European Championship, too, and he captained France. He was their leading scorer in the World Cup when the country won its first and only world title as host nation in 1998, despite not being a regular starter and only 20 years old at the time.

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His pace and dribbling skill, and sangfroid as a finisher made him close to the perfect modern forward, devastating on the counter-attack, able to drift into wide positions to search for opportunity. He is an obvious, natural role model for any forward, and the ideal one for, say, a precious, strong pacey striker who, like him, was born on the outskirts of Paris, and, like him, served his apprenticeship at Monaco and, like him, scored crucial goals to galvanise a World Cup campaign. Yes, the likenesses between Kylian Mbappe and Henry are uncanny, except that Mbappe is still a teenager while stamping his mark on this tournament, while, 20 years ago, in France, Henry was a year older.

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Didier Deschamps, the France manager, and Henry’s captain when the World Cup and 2000 European Championship were won by Les Bleus, calls it “bizarre” that his compatriot will be on the opposing bench this afternoon, encouraging not Mbappe but the likes of Romelu Lukaku. And, for that, it will be a blushing set of Bleus if Belgium outwit the French. Henry may have a confined role, but he is part of an admired coaching team, led by Martinez, who have been tactically dynamic in the tournament, sometimes in adversity, as when substitutions rescued a 2-0 deficit against Japan; sometimes very proactively, when some radical changes, in formation and deployment of key players, underpinned a famous victory, against Brazil in the last eight.

It all means Deschamps and his support staff will have being doing some second-guessing about how Belgium’s attacking players will approach Tuesday’s challenge, motivated by the lure of a first World Cup final. How deep, or advanced, will Kevin de Bruyne play? Martinez has used his best passer in various roles. Will Lukaku probe the flanks as much as the centre? Brazil were confounded by his unorthodox movements last Friday.

But here’s one thing Deschamps can be sure of: if Lukaku has a one-on-one duel with the French goalkeeper, and pauses just before the final shot, or if Eden Hazard cuts in from the left and curls his shot across Hugo Lloris, each of them will have taken expert advice on how to finesse those manoeuvres from one Thierry Henry, French legend.

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Read more:

Richard Jolly:Chance for greatness at the mercy of France or Belgium's golden generations

World Cup 2018 semi-final predictions: Belgium defeat France as England beat Croatia

After Brazil 'miracle', Belgium ready for 'even tougher' World Cup assignment against France

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