Walcott inspires Arsenal to win over Sunderland

Theo Walcott may not yet have secured his seat on England's World Cup plane to South Africa.

But he could hardly have turned in a better audition than the performance he produced in front of England manager Fabio Capello at the Emirates stadium today.

Nicklas Bendtner scored the first-half goal and Cesc Fabregas the injury-time penalty which defeated a sterile Sunderland side but it was Walcott who produced the pace and the menace.

At times it had shades of Zagreb 2008, the night Walcott scored a hat-trick against Croatia which set England on the right course in their World Cup qualifying campaign.

There were no goals this time but if you want a winger to terrorise defenders, then Walcott in this mood does it better than most.

But if Walcott was Arsenal's most lethal attacker, the other man who made the difference was Manuel Almunia.

Arsene Wenger had been anxious to stress his support for Lukasz Fabianski after the young Polish goalkeeper's two howlers had sunk the Gunners in their Champions League defeat against Porto in midweek, but it did not stretch to keeping him in the side.

He went for the experience of 34-year-old Almunia, who was back after passing a fitness test on an injured finger. Sol Campbell, whose backpass also contributed to the Gunners' downfall, started on the bench.

But if the disappointment of Portugal lingered then it did not show. Arsenal were quicker to the ball, Fabregas and Aaron Ramsey seizing control in midfield with their slide-rule passing and pretty patterns.

Walcott announced his desire as early as the fourth minute, sprinting past Sunderland full-back George McCartney like an Olympic finalist - which is not that far-fetched, considering he has been timed at a hand-held 10.2 seconds for 100m.

McCartney must have wondered then if it had been a good idea to get out of bed this particular Saturday.

The answer came time and again over the next hour or so as Walcott tempted him in and then left him in his wake in a straight foot race.

Quite how Sunderland went in only one goal down in that first-half is one of life's little mysteries.

McCartney was part of the reason, deflecting one Samir Nasri shot over the crossbar and then somehow diverting a Bendtner left-foot blast on to the bar only to see it bounce to safety.

The opening goal, however, came courtesy of a slaloming run from Emmanuel Eboue which would not have been out of place on the slopes in Vancouver.

At the end of it he found a precision pass across the box which found Bendtner loitering in cavernous space at the far post. Bendtner may have scored easier goals but it is doubtful.

True, Fraizer Campbell did bring one fine save from Almunia - and how Kenwyne Jones did not score when clean through with only Almunia to beat, only he knows. But for the most part Steve Bruce's side were out-thought, out-manoeuvred and out-played.

They were also somewhat fortunate to finish with a full complement after Sunderland captain Lorik Cana launched a two-footed tackle which felled Eboue. Referee Steve Bennett produced a yellow card, which could easily have been red.

The second half was more of the same, Arsenal flooding forward, full of spark. Walcott brought a fine save from Gordon, Thomas Vermaelen almost decapitated the Sunderland goalkeeper with a free-kick pile-driver and chances were made and squandered in equal measure.

Arsenal almost paid the price - and would have done if it was not for the quick thinking of Almunia, who raced out to smother a Darren Bent shot when the striker was clean through.

There were a few nervy moments for the Gunners as they failed to cash in on their superior possession.

But in injury time Fabregas was brought down by Campbell on the edge of the area and the Spaniard, forever Arsenal's orchestrator, got up to rap home Arsenal's second from the spot.

It was no more than Wenger's men deserved.

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