Walcott's chance to recover that lost zip of Zagreb
Underplayed and out of form, the Arsenal winger must seize his chance to impress for England tonight
Wednesday 03 March 2010
When Fabio Capello yesterday ran through the eight players definitely starting against Egypt tonight he mistakenly mentioned one of them more than once. No surprise that it was Theo Walcott because Capello seems to like him so much, he probably wishes he could pick him twice.
There is a bond between manager and player that stretches back to that wonderful night in Zagreb in September 2008 when Walcott scored a hat-trick against Croatia to kick-start the Capello regime and his own international career. Since then, every time he has been fit Walcott has been in Capello's squad and every time he has been in the squad he has started the game.
Unfortunately for Walcott and Capello, he has managed just four out of the 14 games – friendlies and World Cup qualifiers – that England have played since that night in Zagreb. He collapsed in training the night before England's game against Germany in November 2008 and subsequently required a shoulder operation although that, sadly, has not been the only injury.
Since he came back from a rib injury in January, Walcott has featured in eight of Arsenal's nine games but started only three. As far as Capello's criteria go for picking players who are starting every week for their club sides, Walcott is right on the limit. He is yet to play a full 90 minutes for his club this calendar year. It would be stretching it to call him a regular for Arsenal.
The promise that Walcott demonstrated in Zagreb, which seemed to herald his coming of age on the international stage, has not materialised. That is due in part to the injuries, but even Arsène Wenger's explanation that he needs to be eased back in after his most recent absence is starting to wear thin: sooner or later, Walcott needs to sparkle for England.
Yet there is something about Walcott that Capello evidently values very highly and it cannot just be the memory of that hat-trick in Croatia.
Tonight, Walcott gives England the option of pace on the right wing in a team that is badly lacking quick players. Certainly the likes of Wayne Rooney and Steven Gerrard are not slow but, with Ashley Cole also missing, there is precious little pace anywhere else in the side.
In Zagreb in 2008, England were successful in releasing Walcott to run behind the Croatia defence. For Arsenal he plays in a very different 4-3-3 system that does not exploit his speed beyond the last defender. For that reason it will be interesting to see how Capello tries to get the best from Walcott tonight, three months from the end of what has been a frustrating season for the winger.
It is easy to forget that Walcott is still young – he is not 21 until next month – but he has at times promised to be so much further ahead in his progress than the eight caps he has now. He is indisputably a nice bloke and a true model professional, but he also has to prove that he is worth a place in this team.
Over the last few days, there has been little doubt that Capello regards his first-choice right-sided player to be the injury-plagued Aaron Lennon, whose absence has been bemoaned by the England manager and Rooney this week. Lennon is ahead of Walcott in the queue but then Lennon has never quite had a game for England like the one Walcott had in Zagreb.
Both young men were picked for the last World Cup squad as teenagers and both wandered round the Gelsenkirchen stadium together as the squad did its farewell lap following elimination against Portugal. The sense was that there was so much more to come from them – especially Lennon, who played brilliantly at times in Germany – but neither has fully delivered on the promise.
"I'm upset with the problem of Lennon," Capello said yesterday. "It's important for us and for Tottenham to have Lennon." It is a groin problem that is plaguing Lennon and he has been to Denmark to seek a specialist's opinion. Walcott has undergone operations on both shoulders since 2006. With both of them in their best form, you suspect that a lot of Capello's problems would be solved.
"I have monitored him [Walcott] a lot," Capello said. "He played sometimes 20 minutes, sometimes half an hour. The last game he played not so bad. For that reason, he's here because he's a very important player."
In that comment alone he conveyed the concerns around Walcott that have become impossible to ignore recently. In the three games he has started this calendar year the most he has played is 78 minutes. As a substitute he has more often come on with around 25 minutes left. Does Wenger not trust his player's fitness or is he finding it increasingly hard to find a role for him in a 4-3-3 system?
Insisting that Walcott play for the Under-21s in the European Championship last summer might not have been the best use of his talent, especially when the back problem that kept him out of England's first game of the season was traced to then. He has started just seven games this season and scored his solitary goal of the season against Blackburn in October.
Capello has ignored the claims of Ashley Young, a right-sided player with 34 starts and seven goals this season, to give Walcott another chance to prove himself tonight. On previous big nights he has risen to the occasion admirably, this would be an ideal moment to do so again.
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