Walcott can be the new new Henry -- Wenger
Published 03/11/2010 | 05:00
Many hurdles need to be negotiated before a player labelled a teenage prodigy can be considered top-class and Theo Walcott must feel that no sooner has he overcome one obstacle than another is placed in his path.
His career has been disrupted by injury and he has also suffered from inconsistent form. And the pace that is deemed as perhaps his strongest asset has proved a double-edged sword.
Indeed, it provoked a debate among Arsenal supporters as to whether the player -- for whom manager Arsene Wenger paid a record transfer fee of up to £12m depending on appearances when he joined at 16 from Southampton -- was a footballer, an athlete or, indeed, whether he would even make it at the club.
Wenger, though, has never wavered from a belief that the England player could have a similar impact at Arsenal to Thierry Henry, who joined at 21, Walcott's present age. Like Henry, Wenger sees Walcott as a flying winger who will find his best role as a striker.
The signs are encouraging. Already this season Walcott is one short of his best tally of seven goals, set three years ago.
"Theo has convinced a lot of people," Wenger said. "He can be a prolific scorer, because once he is a yard in front of the defender no one can catch him. He is close to playing that striker role. He is a natural. Theo has calmness in front of goal where before he would rush his decision."
In Henry's case, Wenger had some difficulty when he decided to switch him back to a striking role after he had been playing on the wing at Monaco and Juventus. In the event, he scored 226 goals in 369 appearances, breaking the Arsenal record.
"When I moved him, Thierry said: 'But I can't score goals,' " Wenger said. "Theo is the quickest player I've ever seen, whereas Thierry liked the ball more. Theo is more direct. Both are intelligent."
For now Wenger is employing a lone striker and Walcott's pace is perhaps better exploited running from deep. He will start tonight against Shakhtar Donetsk in Ukraine, where Arsenal will go a long way to assuring qualification for the Champions League knock-out stage if they avoid defeat and almost certainly finish top of Group H if they win.
Wenger will be without captain Cesc Fabregas, Alexandre Song, Denilson and Andrey Arshavin because of injury against a team they beat 5-1 two weeks ago. This will be a far tougher test, however. Arsenal have never won in four matches in Ukraine, losing three times, and Donetsk are top of their domestic league and unbeaten in the league at the Donbass Arena since it was opened in September 2009.
Shakhtar also carry a sense of grievance from the first game. Mircea Lucescu, their coach, said: "I do not think Arsenal is stronger than Shakhtar. We wish the referee made the correct decisions. It should have been a red card for (Jack) Wilshere, as he committed a violent foul on (Tomas) Hubschman, and (Tomas) Rosicky's elbow struck (Olexandr) Kucher's face."
While begging to differ about his team being over-physical, Wenger agreed that: "They are a better side than what they showed at the Emirates. For me they are one of the best sides in Europe. I expect them to have a reaction and response. It's always a difficult place to get a result (because of) the weather, the pitches, the travel.
"Last time we played at Shakhtar we were already through and of course the focus was not exactly the same as if you play for qualification." (© The Times, London)
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