Walcott impresses as Arsenal beat Sunderland
Arsenal 2 Sunderland 0
On Saturday, England manager Fabio Capello was at the Emirates to witness a performance by Theo Walcott that suggested the winger is not far away from a return to form and fitness.
It has been a hard slog for Walcott this season. Injuries to back, knee, hamstring and rib have restricted his appearances so much that he was starting in the top flight for only the fifth time this season.
Even when fit, his displays have not deserved a regular place among Arsenal's starting eleven. With Capello demanding every England player be a regular participant at club level, Walcott has only a few weeks left to stake a claim for a place in the 23-man squad for the World Cup. Saturday's performance, encouragingly, suggested the 20-year-old is up to the challenge.
His explosive pace, that most precious and destructive of qualities, is still there, as he demonstrated when he overtook Sunderland full-back George McCartney with ease in a sprint over 40 yards. However, the failure to provide the finishing touch was also evident; his run ended with a shot that rolled past the far post.
Arsène Wenger, the Arsenal manager, believes Walcott's task of recovering his form is made all the harder by the media attention that follows him. Every time he touched the ball on Saturday, TV cameras at the Emirates cut to Capello in the stands, as if the England coach might offer a running commentary with a thumbs up or down.
Wenger said: "It's terrible pressure, but that's the modern media. When I played, there was no television, no cameras on Capello. Everything is analysed on Match of the Day and then people try to get Capello to analyse it. The World Cup is not today, it's in July."
Capello will this week announce his squad for the friendly with Egypt on 3 March, and Walcott expressed his hope that his name will be included, despite his lack of consistency.
"When you come back from injury you don't want to put too much pressure on yourself saying you want to play 100 percent as well or it won't go your way," Walcott said. "I've experienced that this year as well. The boss has spoken to me and he's the best man to listen to, I think."
Walcott played well but it was the performance of Emmanuel Eboue that made the biggest difference for Arsenal. Eboue's dynamic run from full-back created a first half tap-in for the excellent Nicklas Bendtner. Sunderland were on the defensive for much of the game but still could have equalised had Kenwyne Jones not fired wide with just Manuel Almunia to beat, before Cesc Fabregas scored a penalty in second-half stoppage-time.
Arsenal (4-2-3-1): Almunia; Eboué (Denilson, 90), Vermaelen, Silvestre, Clichy; Song, Ramsey; Walcott (Sagna, 78), Fabregas, Nasri (Rosicky, 72); Bendtner. Substitutes not used: Fabianski (gk), Vela, Traoré, Campbell.
Sunderland (4-1-4-1): Gordon; Hutton, Turner, Mensah, McCartney (Bardsley, 85); Ferdinand; Campbell, Richardson (Zenden, 75), Cana, Bent; Jones (Benjani, 78). Substitutes not used: Carson (gk), Malbranque, Da Silva, Kilgallon.
Referee: S Bennett (Kent).
Bookings: Arsenal Fabregas; Sunderland Cana, Turner, Richardson, Mensah, Ferdinand.
Man of the Match: Bendtner.