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Aug 21, 2010

Walcott makes mark with hat-trick performance

Theo Walcott has every right to believe his personal nightmare is at an end after he fired a brilliant hat-trick to see off star-struck Blackpool at the Emirates Stadium.

It is always hasty to suggest a footballer has reached the decisive moment in his career at the tender age of 21, but that appeared to be the scenario facing the kid who has risen to the top and slipped to the foot of the football ladder at a pace that could only inspire a feeling of nausea.

Few argued with the move of England boss Fabio Capello to leave Walcott out of his World Cup squad back in June as inconsistency had long overshadowed the raw talent this wonder-kid possesses, yet it was a decision that meant this new season fell into the 'defining' category for a player who has split opinions time and again in recent years.

When you are hailed as 'the next big thing' in your mid-teenage years, each and every step of your development tends to take place under a burning spotlight; Walcott often wilted in that glare, testing the patience of both his club and national team manager to breaking point.

Using his searing pace to run down more dead ends than anyone cares to remember, Walcott went from being an England hero to a one-trick pony famous for his failure to deliver an end product when it mattered most.

It left this affable young man in desperate need of something to spark his career back into life and it duly arrived as he put 10-man Blackpool to the sword, making the ultimate statement of intent by firing a hat-trick that oozed the class and quality he has long been expected to display.

The cynics will be quick to suggest this performance against opponents outclassed and outnumbered for much of this game means little in the grand scheme of things, but at least he had the look of player determined to learn from his mistakes and hungry to improve.

In truth, Blackpool simply couldn't handle Walcott from the off and there was no way back for the league's rank outsiderps once he scored the first of his treble after 12 minutes. A move featuring the creative talents of Tomas Rosicky and Andrei Arshavin set up the Arsenal flyer to score a goal he has been waiting to toast all summer.

A fleeting moment of salvation came Blackpool's way when they exposed Arsenal's enduring weakness of defending crosses two minutes after that opening strike, with Gary Taylor-Fletcher spurning a glorious chance to equalise as he planted his header wide from close range.

Yet memories of their famous win at Wigan last weekend faded quickly for Ian Holloway's men against rampant Arsenal; soon after Walcott missed a glorious chance to double his side's lead, the game was all but ended as a contest when Ian Evatt was sent off as he denied Marouane Chamakh a run through on goal after 30 minutes. The subsequent penalty awarded to Arsenal added to Blackpool's misery and Andrei Arshavin tucked away the spot kick with ease.

The colourful collection of Blackpool fans packed into the away section at the far corner of the goal Arsenal were attacking in the first half must have suspected their side were on course to receive a battering, but there was only one more goal for them to lament before the break as a moment of class carved them open once more six minutes before the break.

Walcott was charged with filling the No.14 shirt vacated by Thierry Henry three years ago and he showed a slice of the magic so often displayed by Arsenal's all-time record scorer as he converted Arsenal's third goal. Receiving the ball to his feet in the box, his rapid turn and shot revived memories of the Arsenal legend in his pomp and his finish was equally emphatic.

Theo's hat-trick goal was another thrilling effort, with his burst into the box and cool finish bringing a huge roar from Arsenal supporters who have been left more frustrated than most by his injury-plagued and less than convincing displays in the last couple of years. At last, Walcott delivered in the grand manner.

"I liked Walcott's game today because he created chances and scored goals in good fashion," stated Wenger. "I've never had any doubt that he is an intelligent player and he confirmed as much with this performance. He made the right choices in the dangerous areas and this is a sign of his growing maturity.

"Overall, we were fluid, sharp, quick moving forward and created a lot of chances. I give credit to Blackpool because they started well before the sending off, but it was too much for them in the end."

Further goals from Abou Diaby and a first Premier League goal for Chamakh completed the Arsenal rout, leaving jovial Blackpool boss Holloway to reflect on a result that put his task for the season ahead into some graphic perspective.

"It was always going to be a tough day for us and when you look at their bench for this game, you realise pretty quickly that we are up against it," admitted the always honest Holloway. "The sending off and the penalty that followed made it a mountain to climb for us and I'm quite happy that we only let in six, to be honest. It means our goal difference is only minus two now, so I'll take that.

"Arsenal passed and moved so well and it shocked my lads a little bit, but that's what we are up against this season. We have to get used to this kind of opponent and we have to do a lot better if we are to survive in this league."

So Theo Walcott needed just 66 minutes of his first Premier League start of the season to confirm he is not willing to give up his spot among the stars without a real fight. This has to be the beginning of his revival, but it was a glorious glimpse to what he hopes is still to come.

MAN OF THE MATCH: Theo Walcott This much-discussed starlet looked a class act against Blackpool. Finding consistency has to be his next target.

EMIRATES ROAR: The cheer that greeted Cesc Fabregas' first appearance of the season after an hour of this game was as loud as any this stadium has witnessed. Any suggestion that Arsenal fans were frustrated by their captain's attempts to sign for Barcelona over the summer can be banished.

SAGNA FESTIVAL: Today's match day programme revealed that 700 guests attended the wedding of Arsenal defender Bacary Sagna this summer. Heaven knows how much it cost to throw that lavish event.

UNFAIR PUNISHMENT: This game became a one-side mismatch when Evatt was sent off and Arsenal were awarded a penalty after 30 minutes. It always seems so harsh to punish teams twice for one relatively minor indiscretion.

BLACKPOOL VERDICT: After the heroics against a poor Wigan side last weekend, this thumping offered the Premier League new-boys a more realistic idea of what they are up against this season. It was a humbling experience.

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