Barcelona have become somewhat obsessed with Theo Walcott since the Arsenal winger came off the bench a week ago and ran the Catalan defence into a panic.
He was asked for his times over 100m yesterday when he appeared before the assembled Spanish media. Clearly they had not heard that old English football cliché that the season "is a marathon, not a sprint". Walcott was only too happy to oblige and tell the Spanish inquisition his sprint times. He was put under the stopwatch by Arsenal coaches last summer and found to be even quicker than Thierry Henry at his peak. "I think I can run 100m in 10.3, or 10.5 seconds. When I was 14 I ran 11.5 seconds but that was six or seven years ago, so now I would be much quicker," he said.
Walcott's pace could hardly be described as a secret weapon. It has been the outstanding feature of his game, some might say the only feature of his game, since he burst into the Southampton first team at the age of 16. Pep Guardiola, the Barcelona coach, admitted yesterday that his all-conquering team cannot cope with the speed of Walcott. "He is faster than our whole team put together," the Spaniard said. At the weekend the erudite Barcelona coach had joked the only way to stop him was with a gun.
Walcott's brief performance in last week's first leg in the Emirates has given Arsenal hope. He stepped off the bench and within minutes he dashed past Maxwell and scored low under Victor Valdes to spark an unlikely Arsenal comeback that brought the scores level at 2-2 to tee up a tantalising sequel tonight in the Nou Camp. Walcott's goal also planted the seed of doubt in the backs of Catalan minds and fuelled a belief that Arsenal can hit Barcelona on the break. In Walcott they have the ideal player to do just that.
Yesterday Guardiola had stopped joking and instead had clearly grown tired of fielding questions about Walcott. "The best way to stop a player like Theo Walcott is not let him have the ball," Guardiola said, which can only mean that Barcelona will starve him of possession by hogging the ball for as much of the game as possible, just as they did in the memorable first 45 minutes at the Emirates.
"Walcott is fast, he has strong legs, he played very well in his last game against us. But the main factor was [Arsenal goalkeeper Manuel] Almunia who made 1,000 saves. If we had scored some of those chances, we would have been talking about something else."
Guardiola's testiness concerning Walcott betrays a fear within the Barcelona camp that the England winger poses the greatest threat to the Spaniards' successful defence of the title they won in Rome last season. Opinion in England is divided over whether Walcott will ever blossom into a world-class talent, but in Catalonia they seem to be convinced by his 20-minute cameo.
Walcott celebrated his 21st birthday last month, yet in footballing terms he has yet to make the journey from boy to man. The youngest England player ever, aged 17 years and 75 days when he played against Hungary in 2006, he has promised much but delivered little in the years since. A performance of substance tonight would go some way to demonstrating he has what it takes to become a genuine world-beating talent. That hat-trick against Croatia in the World Cup qualifier in Zagreb seems a lifetime ago, even though it was only in 2008, and a reminder of his undoubted quality this close to the World Cup would be well-timed.
Plenty of attention has been paid to what Walcott does not have. He does not have the outrageous talent of Barcelona's talisman Lionel Messi; he does not have the crossing ability of David Beckham; and former England player Chris Waddle went as far as to say he "does not have a footballing brain." But what he does possess – as Guardiola knows only too well – is pace, that most precious of commodities. And Barcelona do fear it, whatever their manager may say.
Harry Redknapp, who spotted Walcott at 11 and gave him his first-team debut at 16 when they were both at Southampton, once said: "He can run through puddles without making a splash." An alternative view came from Barcelona full-back Eric Abidal, who missed the first leg but will be given the task of trying to stop him this evening. Abidal said: "He is very fast but let's see what he does with the ball."
Walcott's talents are not confined to the football field. He has written four books for children, the first pair of which will be published later this month. A more immediate concern is writing a new chapter in Arsenal's history tonight, as victory here would surely be remembered as one of the greatest European triumphs of all.
"We have to believe that we can come here and get a result," Walcott said. "There is no point playing within ourselves. Hopefully I can get at them and cause a few problems.
"Barcelona play some fantastic football. Last week they were amazing but they tired after 70 minutes. If we can keep the scoreline 0-0 maybe we can keep the fans quiet and cause an upset. The main thing is keeping a clean sheet. We have scored a lot of late goals. We believe we can do it again."
Gunners' glory: Great performances on the European road
Juventus 0-1 Arsenal
23 April 1980, Cup-Winners' Cup semi-final, second leg, Stadio Comunale
Following a 1-1 draw in the first leg at Highbury, and with 15 minutes left to play, manager Terry Neill sends on Paul Vaessen, who heads a priceless 88th-minute goal to put Arsenal in the final, which they went on to lose to Valencia on penalties after the game ended 0-0.
Sampdoria 3-2 Arsenal
20 April 1995, Cup-Winners' Cup semi- final, second leg, Stadio Luigi Ferraris
Arsenal won the first leg 3-2 but looked destined to exit before Stefan Schwarz's late free-kick sent the tie to extra time. David Seaman saved three penalties in the shoot-out to send the Gunners into the final, which they lost 2-1 to Real Zaragoza after Nayim's 45-yard lob.
Internazionale 1-5 Arsenal
25 November 2003, Champions League Group Stage, San Siro
Needing at least a draw to stay in the competition, Thierry Henry terrorised the startled Inter defence to score a double in a comprehensive rout. Freddie Ljungberg, Robert Pires and Edu also contributed goals as the Gunners advanced to the first knockout round.
Milan 0-2 Arsenal
4 March 2008, Champions League Last 16, second leg, San Siro
After a goalless first leg at the Emirates Stadium, the Gunners outplayed the reigning European champions on their own turf in a triumphant display which saw Cesc Fabregas score the decisive goal with a 30-yard shot in the 84th minute.
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