Boy Wonder marvels at City riches

Walcott is worried that Mancini's men are starting to gel but says Arsenal will be 'on the podium' by season's end

They are progressing fast after a difficult start to what always seemed destined to be an exciting journey, and with occasional stumbles along the way. Manchester City that is. Oh, and Theo Walcott too, who hopes to throw another hurdle in their path when Arsenal visit Eastlands today.

It is already four years since Walcott was the £10m boy wonder whose early education after leaving Southampton at the age of 16 was suddenly accelerated by Sven Goran Eriksson's astonishing decision to take him to the 2006 World Cup without a Premier League game to his name. The outcome did nothing for England, though it was a useful experience for the player, who immediately made a stunning first appearance as a substitute on the opening day of the following season, helping turn around Arsenal's home match with Aston Villa.

Subsequent England calls have brought mixed fortunes, highlights being his three international goals, all scored in the space of 55 magical minutes in Croatia; but also a couple of serious injuries, first to his shoulder and then in Switzerland last month to an ankle, severe enough to have kept him out until Tuesday's Champions' League tie against Shakhtar Donetsk, when he was given the last 20 minutes with the game already won.

Indeed, the statistics say that four years on from that debut, of his 89 League appearances (and 140 in all), very nearly half have been from the bench. It may even be that Arsène Wenger sticks with Tomas Rosicky and Samir Nasri as his wide players this afternoon – Andrey Arshavin is in contention too – although for the moment Walcott, ever polite and understated, maintains he is just happy to be back. "It's nice to blow the cobwebs away," he said after Tuesday's 5-1 romp. "It's been six weeks so I've had one training session with the team since I've been back. A couple more and hopefully I can show the boss what I can do and take that into Sunday's game and try to get into the starting line-up."

The manager, of course, knows full well what Walcott is capable of, and the rest of us were reminded when he struck four almost identical goals in two games before this latest injury, a hat-trick against Blackpool and then one at Blackburn, all perfectly hit low across the goalkeeper after coming in from the right-hand side.

In his absence, Arsenal stuttered with one point from three games and were written off in many quarters when one of those matches produced the customary defeat by Chelsea. "I watched the lads and they played well. It's just putting it into the net and that's the next test, it doesn't matter how well we play as long as you get that result against the big teams."

Walcott acknowledges, without dwelling on it, that it was those games in which Arsenal failed last season: "The word you don't want to use in football is 'if'. If we did this, if we did that. It's one of those things and, like I say, hopefully we can take the steps that we took [against Shakhtar] into the game against Manchester City.

"They had a tough game against Blackpool last weekend. They've got some very good players but we just need to look at the positives and try to take them into this match."

How good are they? "City have so much money to splash out with and they've already got fantastic players. I think they're starting to gel now and they also have a fantastic manager, and they are a really strong team. But only time will tell. Beating Chelsea at their place [Eastlands] showed they are very strong and Blackpool played very well but they still managed to grind out a result.

"They're growing every game so hopefully we can stutter their season and try to grind out a result for us. If everyone gets their jobs right then I think we have a great chance. We can catch them on the counter-attack. It'll be a slow game at times, I think, but the pace we've got, we can catch them on the break."

Having recently dropped himself from his own fantasy football team, Walcott now feels ready to return to that side and for the real thing, even though he believes it is a stronger Arsenal side than the one that tailed off into third place, 11 points behind the champions, in the last campaign. "We are better than last season," he said. "The boss believes in us and we're playing fantastic football.

"Obviously we've had that bad result against West Brom [2-3] but apart from that we've been very strong. We've made some good additions to the squad and we're very strong now. We always want to be in the title race and our target at the end of the season is to be on that podium."

Manchester City v Arsenal is on Sky Sports 1 today, kick-off 4pm

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