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Liverpool and Arsenal set for showdown

50-50 Challenge
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Liverpool and Arsenal set for showdown

50-50 Challenge
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Deal or no deal?

It isn't, perhaps, an ideal time for Theo Walcott to be willingly putting himself up in front of the media.

• Walcott wants to be Arsenal icon

After a summer in which he seemed to think he was the latest in a long line of players to outgrow Arsenal, Walcott has found himself on the sidelines - as a substitute for each of the last five games - of what looks the club's finest team in five years.

To give Walcott his due, though, he isn't shy about fronting up. In fact, he tackles all issues head on to promote Mars' Just Play programme. A polite, well-spoken and generally quite polished individual, Walcott would seem to be a sponsor's perfect candidate for this sort of thing. Indeed, up until this summer's speculation about wage demands, he almost appeared to be very different from the usual footballer stereotype - in the game, yes, but not truly of it.

On that, though, Walcott suddenly gets relatively serious. With what seems a well-rehearsed line, he wants to be unequivocal: his ongoing contract situation isn't about the cash.

"That speculation on the money side of it has never been me, that's not been me," he says. "I'm not the sort of person who's influenced by money. I always make my decisions on football and only football. Hopefully something can be sorted out. I'll just wait for the club to get back to us now and go from there."

In the meantime, the club seem to have kicked on. Walcott hasn't started a match since the opening day of the season, reduced to a smattering of cameo appearances since then. In the time since, Arsenal have moved up several gears.

"The team has started fantastically well. It's been frustrating for me not getting into that team but it will take time."

When Walcott was earlier asked what else has been different about this season, he jokingly responded "not getting beaten 8-2 by one of the Manchester clubs". Later on, though, he explains what he feels to be the reasons for Arsenal's improvement. "We've had some great additions who have settled in very well. The backroom staff has changed slightly, the process of training has changed."

That, of course, is something that has been a big question regarding the club's form. Has Steve Bould genuinely had that much of an effect already or did he just arrive at an opportune moment to earn such credit? Judging from Walcott's comments, it certainly seems to be the former.

"We do a lot of defensive work as a whole team, as a whole unit, getting your positions, getting into the habit, which we never really had before. And it's definitely coming along. Steve has been fantastic. He says what he thinks. He wouldn't be a yes man. He'd disagree at times. It's great. He'd be honest with you, which you want."

The on-pitch success that Bould's influence has yielded comes after years of it appearing Arsenal's failure to kick on was precisely because there wasn't anyone on the coaching team with enough clout to properly challenge Wenger. What's more, Walcott only joined the club in 2006. When you consider the career stages of some the players involved at that point as well as some of the departures, it would almost seem to be a natural cut-off point between the prize-winning of the "Invincibles" era and the Sisyphean cycles of moral victories ever since. Given that Walcott has only ever experienced the latter, his explanation is intriguing. Words like 'we never really had that before' and 'wouldn't be a yes man' are all the more so.

Is it possible that Bould has signalled a return to the kind of steel on which Wenger's initial successes were founded? Whatever the reality, there have been genuine changes on the pitch. "It's only five games in and we're going to get better as well. It's a gradual process. You can see the positive vibes at the moment. The next step is to win trophies."

What about the biggest trophies, though? Given that Arsenal have opened with hugely creditable results at Anfield and, most recently, Eastlands, can they actually offer a first true title challenge in five seasons?

"I think we don't want to get ahead of ourselves. We'll just take every game as it comes. We can be challenging for it. We started off very well, tough games with Liverpool, Manchester City. We got good results there. It's very early days but we'll take every game as it comes."

In the meantime, Walcott takes every question as it comes. Inevitably, the subject of John Terry's international retirement arises. And, while the forward simply won't get into the minutiae of the case, his response is equally revealing.

"Personally, he's been great to me. When I first came into the England set-up, he looked after me, arm around the shoulder, always encouraging me. He wrote a nice little message on the shirt for me back at home. It means a lot - it's a privilege. He will be missed but we've got to respect it."

There remains one specific player, though, who has been the biggest inspiration.

"Thierry [Henry] joined the club when he was 22 and I want to become an Arsenal legend like him, playing up front as well, which is a big factor me. I've played a lot on the right and had the opportunity to play up front a bit so I think it's about time."

In that sense, then, it's an ideal time for Walcott. And, having done his media bit, he goes off to muck about with some of the kids Mars have along for their initiative. The idea behind the programme is for adults of any age to get as much playing time as they can, regardless of situation.

The irony, of course, is that that is exactly the issue for Walcott at the moment. What happens next only time will tell.

The FA and Mars are offering a week of free Just Play sessions from October 8th. Visit TheFA.com for more information .

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