Walcott's dynamic display confounds critics
Arsenal 3 Burnley 1
Monday 08 March 2010
While most of the focus was rightly on the stricken Aaron Ramsey following Arsenal's fractious victory at Stoke, Theo Walcott wasn't having the best of times either. Pilloried after his ineffective midweek display for England and struggling for form, fitness and confidence following a series of injuries of his own, the 20-year-old might have retreated into his shell.
Chris Waddle, no stranger to occasional ineptitude on the England flank, said Walcott lacked a "football brain" yet his performance against Burnley on Saturday, particularly in the second half, suggested he has the grey matter and willpower to succeed.
Walcott overcame a nervous opening period, where he avoided and then overreacted to a fair tackle by Burnley's left-back Daniel Fox (perhaps forgivable so soon after Ramsey's horrific leg break) and distributed the ball poorly, to become Arsenal's go-to guy after the interval. He scored his first goal since October, terrorising Fox and teeing up Nicklas Bendtner for a string of chances, none of which was accepted.
Arsène Wenger said he hoped Walcott hadn't read the negative coverage following the Egypt game at Wembley, but he had. "Chris Waddle? I heard what he said, but I don't listen to people on the outside of football," Walcott said. "I'm always the country's biggest hope or biggest disappointment." His hat-trick in Croatia last season inflated expectations and, given the concerns about Aaron Lennon's injury problems, he is a genuine contender for the World Cup, as opposed to the novelty pick four years ago. "At such a young age getting the World Cup thrust on you without playing in the Premier League is difficult to cope with," he said of his time in Germany.
"A lot of people believed in me. But I've had experience of the competition now, I played in the Under-21s and the Premier League. There is more to come, but those experiences will move me on to great things.
"You want to perform as well as you can in every game. I've had so many injuries this season, people don't realise how hard it is to come back from setbacks. Maybe if I keep performing like that it will shut people up."
Arsenal moved level with Chelsea after a fourth successive League triumph and, with winnable games against Hull, West Ham, Birmingham and Wolves coming up, should continue to attract backers for their title charge. Cesc Fabregas scored the first after a one-two with the excellent Samir Nasri, converting the Frenchman's return pass from close range before limping off with a hamstring problem. He is a doubt for Arsenal's Champions League tie against Porto tomorrow. "He has a little chance [of playing]," said his manager. "But if it is more than a 50 per cent chance his hamstring goes I will not take the gamble." Fabregas is the one player Arsenal cannot do without.
In the Spaniard's absence Nasri dictated play, although David Nugent's lobbed equaliser, when he embarrassed Mikaël Silvestre and Thomas Vermaelen, briefly disrupted Arsenal's rhythm. Walcott added a second after an hour, cutting in from the right and finishing sweetly with his left and Andrei Arshavin did likewise for the third goal in added time.
Stoke, Wolves and Wigan lie in wait for Burnley but, after one win in 17 Premier League outings, there really aren't any easy games. "The games against Stoke and Wolves are massive," Nugent said. "We've got to be aiming for at least four points out of six." And then some.
Arsenal (4-2-3-1): Almunia; Eboué, Silvestre, Vermaelen, Clichy; Nasri, Denilson; Walcott, Fabregas (Diaby, 38), Rosicky (Arshavin, 60); Bendtner (Eduardo, 74). Substitutes not used: Sagna, Fabianski (gk), Traoré, Eastmond.
Burnley (4-5-1): Jensen; Mears, Cort, Carlisle, Fox; Paterson (Thompson, 73), Cork, Alexander (Bikey, 65), McDonald (Elliott, 53), Eagles; Nugent. Substitutes not used: Duff, Blake, Jordan, Weaver (gk).
Referee: C Foy (Merseyside).
Booked: Burnley Carlisle, McDonald, Elliott, Paterson.
Man of the match: Nasri.
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