Walcott steps up in Arsenal's hour of need
As weeks on the defensive go, this has been an eventful one for Arsene Wenger. As if the Aaron Ramsey injury and all its molten opinion were not enough, there was the delicate matter of Theo Walcott.
"No football brain," said former England winger Chris Waddle. "Not only does he have a football brain," retorted Wenger acidly, "he has a brain."
Walcott could have chosen no better way to thank his manager for his unwavering support than the footballing intelligence he showed when Arsenal found themselves in a precarious position against the worst travellers in the league.
Burnley had snaffled an equaliser through David Nugent's opportunism and nerves were trickling around the Emirates Stadium. Cesc Fabregas was off the pitch, having been withdrawn to nurse his hamstring. Nicklas Bendtner was auditioning for his own miss of the season compilation. The leadership of Sol Campbell was absent. The drive of Alex Song was suspended. Arsenal needed a hero to emerge from somewhere.
Cometh the hour, cometh Theo. Having enjoyed abundant opportunities to get at Burnley throughout the game, Walcott found himself in possession, in position, on the right-hand side and outside the box. He decided to go it alone and cut inside his man, steadied himself and curled the ball past Brian Jensen with a stroke of his left foot.
Walcott's first goal for five months was a critical one. There had been talk before the game about racking up a scoreline sufficient to go top of the league on goal difference, but such was Arsenal's extraordinary wastefulness, a narrow win was welcome enough. It was only in the final seconds of stoppage-time that Andrey Arshavin's angled strike gave them breathing space.
"We have experienced again today that every game demands total focus and commitment when you play against teams fighting not to go down," Wenger said afterwards.
Arsenal had spurned abundant half chances by the time they managed to find the target in the 34th minute. Samir Nasri was fed by Fabregas on the edge of the area, spotted his captain's surge through a flurry of bodies and looped an exquisite lob over the scrum. Fabregas arrived right on cue to sidefoot his 17th goal of the season, nutmegging Jensen for good measure.
It would be the Spaniard's last contribution, though, as he was substituted before the half was out, feeling the hamstring that had cost him a month out the team over December and January -- a pull suffered against the same opposition at Turf Moor. This is undeniably a worry ahead of the Champions League game against Porto on Tuesday night, although Wenger did not immediately rule him out.
The opening goal eased a little of the tension that had carried over from the Ramsey effect. "In the first half, it was still in our heads," said Wenger. That was particularly evident when Walcott reacted furiously to a challenge from Daniel Fox. Brian Laws was not terribly impressed. "He jumps up and pushes the player when the challenge was there to be made. You can't take away tackling if it's fair and honest and Arsenal can't have it all their own way."
Bendtner's chances alone should have given Arsenal the margin to go above Chelsea on goal difference. The Dane was unable to make excellent crosses from Emmanuel Eboue and Walcott count, and a hat-trick of cringeworthy misses was sealed with an astonishing swipe at Walcott's cut-back. The ball careered high into the stands from close range. There was even time for a couple more miscues before he was substituted, looking notably red faced.
Bendtner compounded his wastefulness by ball-watching instead of competing for a header in the centre circle. Beaten all too easily by Jack Cork, the ball arced over virtually every player and fell invitingly for Nugent. He hooked his shot over the stranded Manuel Almunia and the corner of visitors from Lancashire were instantly transported to a land of footballing miracles.
Wenger was grim-faced at Burnley's recovery. Of all the players to bring a little happiness, it was Walcott who returned the smiles to Arsenal. His goal crowned a 15-minute spell in which he produced what should have been two assists, had one fizzing shot on target and scored.
"I was interested to see how he responded today," said Wenger. "He does what a player has to do. He did not talk to the newspapers, but did his talking on the pitch and answered his critics only with his performance."