Thierry Henry and Patrick Vieira occupied their own intensely involved worlds for almost two hours but, when their first taste of temporary enmity was done, they could look one another in the eye. Both men have influenced far better matches than this Derby de La Côte d’Azur, which conjured up a steady enough stream of flashpoints but laid bare the dearth of quality they must attempt to correct. In the end a draw between two winners kept everyone broadly happy and, in the case of Henry and Monaco, ensured the pressure of a relegation battle gets no graver for now.
“It was bizarre,” said Henry of coming up against his ally of so many battles with Arsenal and France. “When I saw him coming out of the dressing room, it was bizarre. We went up the steps together; we used to play together and here we were, about to play against each other. So we gave a nod to that but then we got lost in the match.”
That was presumably what Henry was talking about behind a nowadays obligatory shielding hand during that walk, which continued as they entered the pitch behind their teams. Vieira could not suppress a grin; the two looked more like convivial dog-walking companions than dear friends about to redefine brieflythe terms of their relationship. Soon the dugouts loomed into view; a hug and a flurry of camera flashes later it was time to put frivolities on hold.
For Henry the fixture was stacked with significance beyond high-profile reunions and the imperative to defeat a local rival. The rancour surrounding his 19th-placed side has hardly abated since he arrived, in contrast to the quietly satisfying progress Nice have made in the top half under Vieira, and the situation was begging for a performance in the image of his playing days.
“It’s maybe too early to say that – you will have a better idea later,” a reasonably content Vieira said when asked if the sides had reflected their coaches. It would be a stretch to say Monaco did that to the letter but there were glimpses of a team designed to play with speed and ambition, even if they were dealt a hand by the dismissal of Nice’s Ihsan Sacko in first-half added time. They deserved the equaliser headed just over the line by Benoît Badiashile five minutes after the interval, puncturing the resolve of a Nice side that, moulded from the back by Vieira, finds goals at either end to be a rarity.
“I couldn’t do what I wanted to do before with the team I had,” Henry said. “You saw in the past three games [including 1-1 draws with Rennes and Marseille] how I like to play: wingers high and wide, passing the ball on the ground, putting pressure up front.”
It is little secret that he has been working with a hand tied behind his back, cajoling a team stripped of the tyros that buccaneered around Europe two seasons ago. Eight of his starting outfielders here were 23 or below, a situation exacerbated by an injury crisis that is slowly easing, and the balance has been all wrong.
Cesc Fàbregas is among four new signings intended to correct that but, two hours before the start, he could be found in the labyrinthine depths of this arena giving an introductory press conference rather than heeding pre-match instructions. Players who had not been signed by 7 December, the date from which this fixture was postponed, were not eligible and the youngsters would have to be enlisted again.
All the same, they emerged admirably from a game that threatened to encapsulate their troubles. When Allan Saint-Maximin ran through to score on the half-hour, capitalising on sloppy play from Youssef Aït Bennasser and drawing a frustrated reaction from Henry, the script looked wearily familiar. It seemed an even crueller twist had been added 15 minutes from time when, with the game poised at 1-1 and Monaco now asking constant questions, Nice were awarded a penalty via the game’s third VAR review. Diego Benaglio saved Saint-Maximin’s kick and, while the substitute Radamel Falcao struck a post later, by the close it appeared some fortune had come Henry’s way at last.
He may need it, and it is an unfamiliar thing to say of someone who has traditionally ruled through excellence. “One thing about Thierry is that he is a winner, a competitor, and that’s one thing you will never be able to take away from him,” Fàbregas had said before taking his seat upstairs. “That’s why I know we are in safe hands.” Henry has always possessed the capacity to set onlookers agog; maintaining that aura in Monaco might be his greatest feat yet.