Monday 22 January 2018

Walcott stakes his claim with hat-trick

Arsenal 4-1 West Brom

Theo Walcott celebrates one of the goals that helped him to a hat trick
Theo Walcott celebrates one of the goals that helped him to a hat trick
Theo Walcott's son Finley makes an appearance at the Emirates
West Brom's James Morrison challenges Theo Walcott for the ball
Arsenal's Alex Oxlade Chamberlain in action with West Brom's Craig Dawson

Jeremy Wilson

So, Arsene Wenger, do you pick the striker at Wembley next Saturday whose last goal was nine games and almost two months ago or do you select the player who just scored a 33-minute hat-trick and has 10 in his last nine starts?

The chants of "Theo, Theo" from the Arsenal supporters was a fairly clear indication of their preference but Wenger's personal faith in Olivier Giroud should certainly not be underestimated.

The choice becomes even more intriguing when you consider just how different these two players are.

Giroud is a specialist in the centre-forward's role - his game is all about power, touch and guile.

Walcott, who was making an extremely rare start in what is his favoured position, would see his principal attributes as pace, movement and his finishing.

Confidence, though, is another most precious quality in any striker and, while Wenger was probably only intending to rest Giroud for this final league match of the season, his thinking for the FA Cup Final has surely been jolted.

Wenger, unsurprisingly, was offering no clue as to what decision he will make but it was interesting to hear West Bromwich Albion manager Tony Pulis admit he was hoping Walcott would not start this game.

"I think Walcott is outstanding as a front player," he said. "You know he can and will score goals.

"I was hoping he wouldn't play because of the pace and movement. You could play with him or Giroud and be very potent. They are just completely different."

In the longer-term Wenger certainly sounded genuine in saying that, at the age now of 26, Walcott really is ready to follow in the footsteps of his hero Thierry Henry by playing more regularly through the middle.

"It is the right age," said Wenger. "His style is a bit different. I always said he could play there because of his movement and finishing. He's a good goalscorer but was out for a year. That's a long, long time for your sharpness and confidence."

Walcott's contribution guaranteed that Arsenal did improve a Premier League place on last season and finish third.

It should also impact positively on his ongoing contract talks with the club, although Wenger stressed the club "wanted him to stay before and after the hat-trick".

There was also the context of West Brom's fairly feeble first-half performance but Walcott began like a man possessed.

His first chance arrived after only four minutes, with Santi Cazorla and Jack Wilshere combining before feeding Walcott in space just inside West Brom's penalty area.

The angle was acute but Walcott did not hesitate and smashed a wonderful finish past Boaz Myhill that was still rising as it literally flew into the top corner.

Wilshere was also involved for the second, this time exchanging passes with Mesut Ozil before Walcott instinctively prodded past Myhill after a mistake by Gareth McAuley.

Like Walcott, Wilshere has struggled for first-team football since his return from injury but was playing with sufficient energy and creativity to give Wenger another selection quandary ahead of Saturday.

Wenger later explained how he saw Wilshere and Kieran Gibbs as "the future, the core" of his team.

Wilshere also delivered a finish of breathtaking power, smashing a left-footed half volley past Myhill from just outside the box.

Walcott remained a huge attacking threat and forced further saves of Myhill before duly completing his hat-trick.

It was ultimately a most simple finish at the far post but the passing between Wilshere, Alexis Sanchez and Cazorla that again cut open West Brom was quite brilliant.

The second half was anti-climatic although the limitations of Arsenal goalkeeper David Ospina were evident in West Brom's consolation when he was out-jumped by McAuley following a Chris Brunt corner.

There was then another wobble from the shaky Ospina in added time when he allowed Craig Gardner's shot to slide through his nervous hands before bouncing fortuitously off the post.

Wojciech Szczesny has been Wenger's FA Cup goalkeeper for most of the season and will surely now replace Ospina on Saturday.

Wenger did bring on both Giroud and Aaron Ramsey for the concluding minutes, with Ramsey hitting both the crossbar and post. He can be expected to start at Wembley but whether Giroud returns for Walcott is now considerably less certain.

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