Walcott stands in the way of Arsenal's new kid on the block
Oxlade-Chamberlain must fight his close friend for a starting place on the right with both club and country
For Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, the challenge facing him at Arsenal is, he acknowledges, a very simple one: he has to take his best mate's place in the team.
The 18-year-old became England's youngest-ever Champions League goalscorer on Wednesday night when he got the first against Olympiakos in Arsenal's 2-1 win but that, he hopes, was just the start of it all. From now on the challenge is to establish himself as Arsène Wenger's first-choice right winger and in order to do that, he will have to take the place of his friend Theo Walcott.
Pat Rice, Wenger's assistant, said so himself on Wednesday night when he explained how he and the Arsenal manager regard Oxlade-Chamberlain's future. "He's got a big challenge to try and get in front of Theo," Rice said. "I know Theo is a very strong guy and he won't give in easy." There was no attempt to make it any more palatable that that: Wenger clearly sees it as a case of Walcott v Oxlade-Chamberlain.
Given that the two players both came to Arsenal from Southampton and that Walcott has taken Oxlade-Chamberlain under his wing it is one of those strange situations that football throws up. Wenger believes there is room for only one of them in his team – and if Oxlade-Chamberlain's career develops as Rice believes it will – then it will one day be the same with the England team, too.
Oxlade-Chamberlain, a £12m signing in the summer with only League One experience before this season, was philosophical about it. "I know I've got to dislodge Theo to get in the team regularly and that's football isn't it?" he said. "You're all mates off the pitch, but on the pitch you're all competing for places. That only makes a healthier squad.
"People fighting for positions means everyone has got to step their game up. It will be very hard for me to get Theo's position or anyone's position in this team, but I'm prepared for the challenge and I'm just going to keep learning every day and working hard."
Watching in the stands at the Emirates on Wednesday night, Walcott, currently injured, will see it a different way. He has made no secret of the fact that he sees his future as a striker rather than a winger and Rice's refusal to acknowledge that will probably rankle with the player in private.
However, Walcott is no longer the kid at Arsenal whom everyone is waiting to flourish into the finished article. For a 22-year-old, with five and a half years at the club and 18 England caps, he has a lot of experience. But in Oxlade-Chamberlain he has a self-assured young rival who is not afraid to take his chance.
Oxlade-Chamberlain said: "I'm confident I can come in and make a real impact this season. One of the main things for me is I'm going to learn by getting more game time. I know that's not going to come easy, but over this season, next season and the season afterwards, I'm just going to work hard in training.
"Theo has been showing me the ropes. I sit next to him in the dressing room and he's helped me along, especially as he knew how I felt coming from Southampton. But it's not just Theo, it's all the boys, they've all been helping me out. I've been watching Theo because I'm playing on the right wing at the moment and I'm just trying to take from his game and learn from the stuff he does."
As for Wenger, Oxlade-Chamberlain cited him as the key influence in his decision to sign. "He's such an intelligent man. The stuff he says you have to sit back and admire – even his team talk [on Tuesday, given at the team hotel]. The stuff he says is brilliant and you always learn things from him. He has a quiet word every now and again, and his advice is spot on. You think 'actually, yeah, I didn't realise that'."
Young guns hit the target
Arsenal now boast the three youngest English Champions League goalscorers:
Oxlade-Chamberlain 18 yrs, 44 days: Arsenal v Olympiakos, 28 Sept 2011
Theo Walcott 18 yrs, 221 days: Arsenal v Sparta Prague, 23 Oct 2007
Jack Wilshere 18 yrs, 291 days: Arsenal v Shak Donetsk, 19 Oct 2010
Youngest Champions League scorers:
Peter Ofori-Quaye 17 yrs, 195 days: OLYMPIAKOS v Rosenborg, 1 Oct 1997
Bojan Krkic 17 yrs, 217 days: Schalke 04 v BARCELONA, 1 April 2008
Cesc Fabregas 17 yrs, 218 days: ARSENAL v Rosenborg, 7 Dec 2004
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