Walcott on song

Arsenal’s Theo Walcott (middle) scores his second goal past Slavia Prague’s goalkeeper Martin Vaniak during their Champions League match.-AP Arsenal’s Theo Walcott (middle) scores his second goal past Slavia Prague’s goalkeeper Martin Vaniak during their Champions League match.

Given a start as a central striker, the position which Arsene Wenger sees him growing into, rather than on the wing, Theo Walcott hinted at his full thrilling potential. David Hytner reports.

Evenings do not come much better than this. As Arsene Wenger savoured the rolling on of his Arsenal juggernaut towards the knockout stages of the Champions League, with a 12th consecutive victory in all competitions, and by a record margin in Europe too, he could also allow himself to lavish praise upon one of his young stars. Theo Walcott stole the show. There was competition for that honour, chiefly from Cesc Fabregas, who added two more goals to his collection, and Alek sandr Hleb, who tiptoed in on the rout, but Walcott’s was the name chanted with most feeling by a crowd who gorged on excess.

Arsenal supporters have been starved of English attacking talent in recent years and they have been eager, perhaps overly so, to idolise Walcott, the boy who joined them from Southampton in January 2006. As he has only flickered, so he has frustrated. Few teenagers have carried such expectations. Before the match, he had only one goal to his name, against Chelsea in last season’s Carling Cup final.

But given a start as a central striker, the position which Wenger sees him growing into, rather than on the wing, he hinted at his full thrilling potential. He remains some way short of the finished article and it took him time to assert himself against a bewildered Slavia Prague, but the first of his two goals liberated him and the second, guided home with the outside of his right boot, reminded many in the 60,000 crowd of a former hero.

“There was a touch of Thierry Henry about his second goal,” said Wenger, who saw Martin Vaniak, the Slavia goalkeeper, deny Walcott a hat-trick with a late reflex save. “The first quality is to be composed and not to rush things. Once Theo scored his first, you saw him much more. When they opened up the space, you could see his runs and pace, and the fact he is clinical in front of goal.”

Walcott was thrust to global prominence when he was the surprise inclusion in Sven-Goran Eriksson’s England squad for the 2006 World Cup finals. He did not feature and has since appeared regularly for the Under-21s but Wenger believes he would benefit from a full recall.

“It would help him to be back in the squad,” he said. “You complain (in England) that you don’t have many strikers. Theo is one of them. He has all the ingredients to be a top striker; fantastic pace, intelligence and his technique is improving.”

Walcott said: “People will say that my second goal was like a Thierry Henry finish and I watched him in training all the time. I had a chance tonight and I took it. It was an absolutely brilliant team performance.”

There was a swagger about Arsenal from the off and the opening goal bore the fingerprints of two players at the very top of their games. Hleb played in Fabregas and his curling effort found the far corner. Hleb wanted to claim the second goal but his strike took such a significant deflection off the defender David Hubacek, that Uefa deemed it an own goal.

Walcott had already crossed for Emmanuel Adebayor to bring a save out of Vaniak when he added to Slavia’s misery before half-time. Vaniak took the startling decision to volley clear Daniel Pudil’s overhit backpass, miskicked and found only Walcott, who sidestepped him with ease and found the empty net.

Having been instructed to go for the jugular by Wenger at half-time, they responded. Hleb got the goal he deserved, when he took Fabregas’ pass, tricked past Matej Krajcik and drove home before Arsenal produced two more beautiful team goals.

First, Fabregas and Hleb combined to put Walcott in for his memorable finish; then, Hleb led a break from the edge of the Arsenal area, moved the ball to Adebayor and he found Walcott. The 18-year-old’s first-time touch invited Fabregas to profit from close range. The substitute Nicklas Bendtner set the seal upon the victory.

Before the game, Arsenal had heard Jens Lehmann call upon Wenger to end his “humiliation”. The German also poured scorn on Wenger’s contention that he had three “world-class goalkeepers”. As far as Lehmann is concerned, he is the only one. Wenger will rebuke him but it seemed little more than an amusing distraction. The Emirates crowd was in party mood, acclaiming their heroes, including a few from the past — Ian Wright, Patrick Vieira and David Rocastle. A kid called Theo produced the widest smiles.

© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2007