Fabregas hails Walcott the boy wonder

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The Independent Football

The Theo Walcott bandwagon received another injection of "power and pace" yesterday, just as Arsenal did when the teenager came on against Hamburg in their Champions' League tie.

Cesc Fabregas, Arsenal's classy young Spanish midfielder, echoed the morning's headlines with a paean of praise for his team-mate, putting Walcott alongside the brilliant Argentine youngster Lionel Messi, with whom Fabregas grew up at Barcelona. Arsène Wenger will now be urged to start Walcott more frequently, and Steve McClaren will again be petitioned to restore him to the full England squad.

Both managers are wise to wait. It is one thing to introduce Walcott against a tiring side in the closing stages of a match, it is another entirely to start him against fresh, experienced defenders. Walcott's biggest impacts this season have come from the bench, for Arsenal against Hamburg, and for England under-21 against Germany under-21.

When he started for the under-21s in the home leg against the Germans, and for Arsenal in the Carling Cup at Everton, he was less penetrative. "Theo made such a big difference when he came on," said Wenger. "He gave us a real injection of power and speed when we needed it."

Wenger added: "At the moment he is in a mental state where he knows he can affect the game when he comes on. He has the physical ingredients when the game needs pace. He has learned a lot already, he will continue to come on in games and if he matures every time he plays he will learn a lot. His time to start a game will come again."

For Fabregas that time should come soon. "Theo is showing everyone that he is a great player," Fabregas said. "I was surprised how good Theo was because I had never heard of him as I do not follow the [Coca-Cola] Championship, but when he came to Arsenal, you could see he has the quality. If I had to choose two players, it would be Theo and Lionel Messi. For me they are the two best players I have seen at 16 or 17."

Yet even Fabregas had a word of caution. "I know from my own experience it takes time when you are young, and in England their own young players are under pressure. Sometimes the manager uses him sparingly so people do not have a go at him.

"But he is able to handle it, like [Wayne] Rooney, and that is why he is so good. He will play for Arsenal many times." Wenger noted that because Champions' League games "are played with such intensity", they open up in the last 10 to 15 minutes which is when Walcott can exert a real influence with his exceptional speed. That much was borne out on Tuesday when a quarter of the 20 goals scored in the night's eight ties came in the last 10 minutes - a percentage which would have been higher had Ruud van Nistelrooy and Louis Saha not both missed last-minute penalties.

Not that Walcott's game is all about electrifying pace. The way he carefully paused to pick out Julio Baptista when crossing for Arsenal's third goal showed his growing maturity. In time, he will be a sensational player. But on Tuesday he was, as Wenger noted, far more successful when switched to the right flank, which was not protected by a specialist full-back, than on the left where he was first introduced.

It is possible that, in the absence of the suspended Thierry Henry, Walcott will start in the Group G tie in Porto on 6 December. However, there are other options available to Wenger with the Gunners' armoury strengthened by the return of Freddie Ljungberg. The Swede played 75 minutes on his first start since September after suffering a calf problem. His return had been delayed by migraine attacks following an allergic reaction to eating cheese while in Sweden last week.

He said: "I suffer from migraines and one of the triggers is cheese. We were at a big gala, where there were about 7,000 people. They know I am allergic to cheese and I did get a special plate, but somehow they managed to get cheese on it. It was in the mashed potato and I had an attack. It was a bit unfortunate, because everywhere I go, I ask what food it is - but sometimes it happens.

"It felt really good to play again, although after six or seven weeks out, I did feel a bit tired in the end.

"Conceding [an] early goal [made] it more difficult for us and put a bit of pressure on. When we came out in the second half and went behind them, we created more chances. In the end, we deserved to win."