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Sep 13, 2008

Walcott continues rapid progress at Ewood

Blackburn Rovers 0-4 Arsenal

It was the match after the game before, but there was no sign of a hangover. Rather, Blackburn Rovers ended punch drunk. They, and not Theo Walcott, will be reaching for the paracetamol. For football's answer to Usain Bolt, the transition from derided teenager to supposed national icon took 90 minutes. The journey to becoming an essential element in the Arsenal side may last longer, even for one as quick as the 19-year-old, but a trip to Ewood Park has acquired a significance.

Yet following his hat-trick in Croatia, there appeared an inevitability that this would be an anti-climactic afternoon. He would be ranked below Emmanuel Eboue and placed on the bench, or kicked into submission, or simply go missing. So much for such theories. If this was not quite comparable with Croatia, Walcott excelled nonetheless. In the final verdict, he was overshadowed by the hat-trick scorer, Emmanuel Adebayor, but in any analysis of the game, his contribution has to be recognised.

As is frequently the case, the first goal was the most decisive. The inspiration for it was supplied by Walcott and in a telling manner. Finding himself on the left flank, with a trio of opponents threatening to converge on him, Walcott glided infield before weighing a ball to Robin van Persie who, in turn, defeated Paul Robinson nonchalantly.

Croatia can testify to his finishing. This was Walcott the creator. There is a school of thought that Walcott is not fully attuned to Arsenal's passing game, that his pace can bring impatience, whereas Arsenal's ball-players see passing as an end in itself. Yet in one moment, deft distribution was allied with a cutting edge.

Blackburn's approach was equally indicative. That none of the would-be markers closed Walcott down suggested a fear of his speed. Granted room, he used it intelligently. A reluctance among opponents to risk a challenge offers him an advantage. There are signs now that he is beginning to exploit that.

His counterpart came courtesy of another injection of youth. Paul Ince had given a first start to Danny Simpson. The seeming intention was to match pace with pace. It failed; firstly because Walcott is somewhat quicker; and secondly because the winger's roaming brief meant he was equally liable to torment Stephen Warnock.

So both full-backs could have been forgiven for wishing Samir Nasri had been passed fit. Thus far, Walcott's career is still more notable for decisions taken by Sven-Goran Eriksson and Fabio Capello than Arsene Wenger himself. His selection, if a consequence of Nasri's absence, was a correct choice by the Frenchman.

But, as the Arsenal manager admitted: "I was thinking of leaving him out but it's just for the balance of the team, I thought I'd play him today. Away from home, Theo can give us that penetration. He can play left and right and he's happy to play on the left because he can score with his right foot." He came close to doing that, with a curling shot that was reminiscent of Thierry Henry in its style, if not its destination, wide of the Rovers goal.

More clinical finishing came from Adebayor, whose hat-trick opened his Premier League account for the season. His first was particularly memorable, his downward header from Denilson's cross providing the culmination of a sweeping move. Wenger confessed that he, too, thought Arsenal were merely playing out time before the interval. He added: "Sometimes when you are patient and simple, the opening comes along. It was about 20 passes from right to back to left and then the cross and we score.'

When Stephen Warnock fouled Eboue, Adebayor delivered a second goal from the penalty spot. His third followed in extra time, the Togolese strolling round the unfortunate Rovers goalkeeper.

Blackburn manager Ince sympathised: "I felt sorry for Paul Robinson because he hasn't done anything wrong and he's conceded eight goals in two games." That, nonetheless, should be a concern. Blackburn's defending was substandard and, though there were moments when Arsenal's was not much better, a succession of first-half chances were spurned.

Yet the abiding memories are of the compelling football orchestrated by Cesc Fabregas and Denilson and given a finishing touch by van Persie and Adebayor. Their travelling fans had been buoyed before kick-off by Ryan Babel's winner at Anfield. And thereafter, their afternoon just got better and better.

MAN OF THE MATCH: Theo Walcott - Promise and potential are one thing, performances another altogether. This has been a week where Walcott has delivered. Long may it continue.

CHANT OF THE MATCH: "You've only come to see Eboue," chorused the Arsenal fans. They might have had a point: the subject of their affections did produce one of his finer performances, culminating in the award of the penalty

BLACKBURN VERDICT: They retain the ability to create chances, but they have regressed. Mark Hughes" Blackburn tended to be more resolute. Ince's sign were too open and both the balance of the side and the standard of defending are worries. Greater solidity is required.

ARSENAL VERDICT: Their passing was magnificent, to the extent that even the beaten manager called them "a joy to watch'. Lacking an orthodox defensive midfielder and with a back four who showed glimpses of frailty, they may not have the most secure rearguard. Equally, when opponents can't get the ball off them, it hardly matters.

SWEET SIXTEEN: The substitute Jack Wilshere became, at 16 years 256 days, Arsenal's youngest player in league football in the closing minutes. Long criticised for his reluctance to use homegrown players, Wenger is now in the possession of two teenage talents. "He is another one for you," the Arsenal manager told his largely English audience.

CRYING FOWL: There was no place in the 18-man squad for Ince's latest signing, Robbie Fowler. On a pay-as you-play deal, this match wouldn't have proved too profitable for a man who once scored a four-minute hat-trick against Arsenal.

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