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Mar 12, 2012

Walcott wide awake as Arsenal ascend

Having crashed through the swinging doors of the last-chance saloon with his fate as a flop apparently sealed, Theo Walcott suddenly seems intent on salvaging his Arsenal career.

Those of us who were present inside Emirates Stadium for the north London derby against Tottenham just two weeks ago will confirm that Walcott was being singled out as the fall guy for the Gunners' imminent failure, the symbol of false promise in a season that was apparently set to confirm their demise.

An increasing majority of the fans who had grown frustrated with Walcott's consistent inconsistency decided the moment had come to abandon their patience and give up on Walcott once Spurs moved into a 2-0 lead in a game Arsenal dare not lose. At that moment, it seemed as if the one-time 'next big thing' in English football was about to drown in his own mediocrity.

Manager Arsene Wenger admitted he contemplated "removing Walcott from the firing line" as the supporters turned against him, yet that Spurs game proved to be the afternoon when the kid who has long promised so much finally awoke from his slumber.

Two superb second-half goals against the old enemy meant those same Arsenal fans who were goading Walcott at will were quick to hail him as their darling once again and while his displays since that memorable Sunday afternoon have hardly been a revelation, it seems as if something has clicked in Walcott's fragile mind.

The emergence of a young man signed from the same south coast club he was recruited from may well have sparked Walcott into life, as just when it seemed as if his fellow Southampton academy graduate Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain was about to steal the crown previously reserved for him, the original boy wonder has shot to the forefront once again.

Creator-in-chief as a Van Persie strike and dramatic late Thomas Vermaelen winner sealed a vital win against battling Newcastle, the player vilified as one of the architects of Arsenal's demise is now leading their improbable end-of-season revival.

Walcott looked capable of ruffling Newcastle's feathers throughout this game and while the visitors' eagerness to unsettle their opponents by wasting time at every opportunity nearly paid off, a winning goal was always likely to stem from the Arsenal No.14. And so it proved.

His threat throughout this game rarely waned. Midway through the first half, Walcott so nearly swung the game in his side's favour with a burst of his trademark pace. A perfectly-weighted ball invited Tomas Rosicky to convert from close range, only for the in-form Czech to screw his effort wide.

The removal of Oxlade-Chamberlain moments later sparked a heated debate among the Arsenal fans sitting around the press box, many of whom would have preferred to see Walcott removed. That would have been a harsh sentence for the winger, though, whose willingness to make himself available and improved desire earned him the right to remain.

Walcott so nearly snatched the winning goal as his shot was blocked by the back of talismanic Newcastle skipper Fabrico Coloccini in the final seconds of normal time, yet the winger who has flattered to deceive so often was not ready to give up on his mission to win this game.

The 95th minute began with Walcott offering a final burst of pace down the flank and as the ball fell fortuitously for the onrushing Vermaelen in the box, the big defender gleefully tapped home a winner that sparked a stunning roar from fans who believe in their team all over again.

"Tottenham have got to be watching over their shoulders now," boasted a delighted Walcott afterwards. "It has been an up and down season, but it is how you finish that matters. I put the ball into a decent area in the end and we had someone who could tuck it again. It's a big win for us, but we have to crack on from here."

Wenger was equally bullish as he was quick to hail the performance of his previously-maligned winger. "Walcott produced an exceptional performance in this game as we proved once more how incredible the spirit is in this team," said Wenger. "We look like we are refusing to give up at the moment and that has led to us getting last-minute winners against Sunderland, Liverpool and now Newcastle.

"Despite this, we have to keep our feet on the ground. We are giving everything right now and we now find ourselves in a much better position that we were a few weeks ago, but there are still ten games to play and nothing is decided yet."

Arsenal's late winner was harsh on a Newcastle side who had given their all to the cause, with boss Alan Pardew admitting fatigue cost his side in the end. "When the board went up with five minutes added time, I looked at the bodies I had out on the pitch and realised we would do well to get through it," he conceded.

"We had given everything and while I felt we had just about done enough to see it through, it was not to be in the end. What we cannot do is allow this disappointment to deflate us unduly as there is still a real chance for us to challenge for a Europa League place this season."

Fittingly, Walcott was the last Arsenal player to leave the field, with cries of 'Theo, Theo, Theo' heralding his exit. What a difference two weeks can make.

MAN OF THE MATCH: Theo Walcott. With two assists and an energetic display down the flank, Walcott has gone from zero to hero in double-quick time at Arsenal. Now he needs to maintain this improved form.

LATE DRAMA: Arsenal skipper Van Persie was at the centre of a scuffle with compatriot Tim Krul after the Gunners snatched their late goal. Clearly annoyed by the time wasting efforts of the big goalkeeper, the feud continued down the tunnel.

NEWCASTLE VERDICT: For all their hard work and effort, Newcastle left Emirates Stadium empty handed. There was much for boss Pardew to take from his side's display, but the point he craved was snatched from his grasp at the last.

ARSENAL VERDICT: Momentum is a vital commodity in any sport and Arsenal have it in abundance all of a sudden. Having come from behind four times in succession to win in the Premier League, they are now firm favourites to claim third sport after a revival not even their most blinkered of followers saw coming.

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