Little Theo Walcott, a nation turns its lonely eyes to you. The Englishman in the most lustrous attacking football team in the country finally got his chance to sparkle last night and his two goals gave English football something it could cling to. As the national team prepares to enter a long, dark winter of the soul, any fragile hope will do.
"At times it was a joy to watch," Arsène Wenger said although he was not just talking about Walcott but the whole Arsenal attacking ensemble that swept past Slavia Prague on seven occasions. This team of Wenger's have been accused of trying to walk the ball into the net at times and, for the seventh goal from substitute Nicklas Bendtner, they did exactly that. It was gripping stuff with Walcott at the heart of it.
The 18-year-old was only denied a hat-trick by a despairing save from Martin Vaniak in the 81st minute, but that was just about all the Slavia goalkeeper stopped. The seven-goal margin equalled the biggest-ever victory in the Champions League and for Walcott it was a night that he will never forget. Wenger agreed there was "a touch of Thierry Henry" about Walcott's second goal, although that particular old boy does not seem to be missed one bit.
Around 21 months since he joined from Southampton, this was Walcott's night. Out of the shadows of Henry, Emmanuel Adebayor and Robin van Persie and into the light, he finally looked like a potential England international. "If you look across the country, you complain that you do not have many strikers – Theo is one of them," said Wenger. "I believe he has the talent – that is why he is at Arsenal. The problem is not to hurry too much. He has good ingredients in him. He is intelligent, has fantastic pace – and his technique is improving. But you need to be patient."
The way things are going, the Arsenal manager will get his wish – it certainly does not look like Walcott, or any other Englishman, will have to worry about Euro 2008.
Wenger only hinted at the awakening Walcott has undergone since arriving for a fee that could rise from £5m to £12.5m. "When you are 15 in football you think everyone loves you, then when you develop you come into fierce competition just for a place in the team," he said. However Walcott looks at it, last night will have been a lot more satisfying than a Hello! magazine photoshoot or any of the other bizarre brushes with celebrity he has had before his football career has really blossomed.
This 12th consecutive win for Arsenal puts them within two of the club's 20-year-old record although their next two games, against Liverpool and Manchester United, involve much stiffer opposition than Slavia proved. As grumpy goalkeeper Jens Lehmann looked on there was a masterclass from Cesc Fabregas who scored two goals himself yet even he and Walcott would probably have to defer to Aleksandr Hleb as the game's best player.
Arsenal took Slavia apart from the very beginning and never stopped. "I feel football is a pleasure to play and when you finish your career you regret the time you did not enjoy it," Wenger said – which was his way of saying that, 3-0 up at half-time, he did want his players to take it easy in the second half.
The first arrived within five minutes, made by Hleb. Trapped near the corner flag on the left wing, his pass eluded three Slavia players to pick out the run of Fabregas, who curled the ball around Vaniak from just inside the area. On 24 minutes, a badly-cleared Fabregas corner fell to Hleb in the left channel of the box and his shot clipped the foot of the Slavia defender David Hubacek and beat goalkeeper Vaniak.
It was generous of Slavia to create Walcott's first of the night – and only the second goal of his Arsenal career after last season's Carling Cup final. From the right, the full-back Daniel Pudil struck an awkward ball back to his goalkeeper Vaniak who did an even worse job of controlling it. Walcott took the ball past the goalkeeper and put his shot into an empty net. His goal, he said, was dedicated to the late brother of his brother-in-law.
Pure misery for Slavia after half-time. On 51 minutes, Hleb took Fabregas's pass, cut inside, switched feet and put the ball inside Vaniak's right post. Arsenal were in the mood to be cruel, adding the fifth after 55 minutes through Walcott. This was the one with the touch of Henry about it, Hleb finding Walcott who turned on the jets to get clear of the Slavia full-back and poked the ball in the far corner.
The sixth was the best of the lot, a move that started in the left-back position with Mathieu Flamini bursting clear of his man and picking out Adebayor in the centre. From there the striker helped it on to Walcott on the right who, with dreams of a hat-trick racing through his mind, picked the right option with a first time ball into Fabregas's stride. He took one touch and poked in the sixth goal.
Bendtner scored the seventh from close range for Arsenal's third victory in three in Group H and few will look as effortless as this one.
Arsenal (4-4-2): Almunia; Sagna, Touré, Gallas, Clichy; Eboué, Flamini (Gilberto, 63), Fabregas, Hleb (Rosicki, 63); Walcott, Adebayor (Bendtner, 63). Substitutes not used: Lehmann (gk), Diaby, Diarra, Eduardo.
Slavia Prague (4-5-1): Vaniak; Krajcik, Suchy, Hubacek Pudil; Senkerik, Svec, Tavares (Belaid, 63), Kalivoda (Jablonsky, h-t), Ivana (Volesak, 56); Vlcek. Substitutes not used: Vorel (gk), Gaucho, Drizdal, Sourek.
Referee: S Farina (Italy).
Results: Arsenal 3 Seville 0; Slavia Prague 2 Steaua Bucharest 1; Seville 4 Slavia Prague 2; Steaua Bucharest 0 Arsenal 1; Arsenal 7 Slavia Prague 0; Seville 2 Steaua Bucharest 1.
Remaining fixtures: 27 Nov: Seville v Arsenal; Steaua Bucharest v Slavia Prague. 12 Dec: Arsenal v Steaua Bucharest; Slavia Prague v Seville.
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