Saturday 25 November 2017

Walcott extends hot streak with double strike as Arsenal turn on the style

Arsenal 2 Basel 0

Arsenal’s Theo Walcott fires his and Arsenal’s second goal against Basel. Picture: Reuters
Arsenal’s Theo Walcott fires his and Arsenal’s second goal against Basel. Picture: Reuters
Arsenal's Mesut Ozil (right) and FC Basel's Marek Suchy battle for the ball. Picture: PA
Arsenal's Alexis Sanchez has a shot on goal. Picture: PA Wire
Arsenal's Shkodran Mustafi in action with FC Basel's Seydou Doumbia. Picture: Reuters

Matt Gatward

Perhaps not being handed a part in England's Euro 2016 horror-show was the best thing that could have happened to Theo Walcott.

The Arsenal winger ducked the mud that stuck to Roy Hodgson's ill-fated squad members and had a summer to instead improve his game and his fitness after speaking to Arsene Wenger and his assistant Steve Bould about how he could be better.

He worked with a personal trainer every day, part of a change of mentality that he hopes means he will make the most of his talents.

Walcott (27) admitted on the eve of this routine victory over a limited Basel in the Champions League here at the Emirates that he just wishes he had seen the light earlier in his career.

Last season the winger only started one of Arsenal's last 14 games. He has started all but one this and now has five goals to his name after scoring both goals against the Swiss.

For Arsenal it was their sixth win in seven games - the draw in Paris against PSG the other result - and leaves them facing back to back matches against the group's lightweights Ludogorets of Bulgaria. Win those two and they will be sitting pretty on 13 points and contemplating the first knock-out stage.

Of course, that is where they have suffered fatal blows over the past six seasons against clubs of a higher calibre than Basel.

But with Walcott and Alexis Sanchez, who was again superb in the centre-forward role, in this quick-witted and fleet-footed form Arsenal should believe they can move deeper into the tournament.

Wenger made just the two changes from the side that beat Chelsea in such thrilling fashion at the weekend: Granit Xhaka came into midfield to face his brother Taulant; David Ospina, after his heroics against PSG, took the goalkeeper gloves from Petr Cech - not that he had much cause to dirty them.

The home side were at it from the off with a buzzing Sanchez linking play with some deft backheels and lay-offs. The Chilean nearly tested the Basel goalkeeper Tomas Vaclik in the fifth minute only for a last-gasp tackle to deny him a shot at goal.

Alex Iwobi, the perfect Wenger footballer what with his laconic running style and delightful timing of a pass, then teed up Nacho Monreal but his shot was blocked by Vaclik.

The breakthrough came a moment later when Santi Cazorla chipped a lovely pass down the left side of the box for Sanchez who clipped a perfect cross onto the head of the inrushing Walcott. Six minutes in and it looked like it could be a long night for Basel.

Sure enough on 25 minutes Walcott played a one-two with Sanchez 10 yards outside the Basel box and the return put him in on goal. The winger drove the ball in off the far post.

On 32 minutes Arsenal put together the move of the night when Walcott and Hector Bellerin combined down the right. Walcott squared to Cazorla who deftly laid the ball off to Sanchez, but his attempted dink - he would have been better shooting first time - was saved by Vaclik.

Bellerin then had an effort saved, Mesut Ozil toe-poked wide, Sanchez, after a fine pass from Monreal, saw his shot again blocked by the excellent Vaclik and Ozil hit the side-netting from a Sanchez chip as Arsenal, all lovely lay-offs, one-twos and natty interplay, threatened to run away with it.

The only surprise at half-time was that Arsenal were just two goals to the good.

The second half started in the same vein with Sanchez robbing Marek Suchy - much as he had Gary Cahill on Saturday - and almost finding Ozil in the box. Suchy was being run ragged by the Chilean.

The Arsenal tempo dropped as the game meandered somewhat and Basel's Birkir Bjarnason forced Ospina to tip a shot over the bar from outside the area. The Icelandic midfielder, who was part of the England-slaying team in the summer and earned a modelling contract on the back of the Euros, then made an ugly hash of a chance when the ball dropped to him at the back post after a corner.

Sanchez somehow volleyed inches wide from Walcott's cutback, denying him the goal his performance deserved. It was to be Walcott's last action, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain - who should have set up Sanchez after he had rounded the keeper late on - replacing him with 20 minutes to go.

The ovation and the chants of "Theo, Theo" given to the No 14 as he walked off were further evidence of a summer well spent. (© Independent News Service)

Irish Independent

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