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Walcott hoping to come of age in Zagreb cauldron

SoccerNews in English Premier League, World Cup 10 Sep 2008

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Theo Walcott may forever be remembered as the 17-year-old called up from nowhere to join England's 2006 World Cup squad.

But two years on, and with England facing a crucial qualifier against Croatia here on Wednesday, he finally feels ready to make an impact on international football.

The Arsenal striker admits he was star struck when Sven-Goran Eriksson made one of the most unexpected selections of all time by taking him to Germany — and many critics believe the decision hampered his progress.

His selection, ahead of players such as Jermain Defoe, caused instant controversy which only intensified when England's little-boy-lost failed to play a single minute of football during the tournament.

Walcott was quickly jettisoned to the under-21s when Eriksson was replaced by Steve McClaren after the finals but now, under his third England manager, things are looking up.

Fabio Capello produced his own selection shock by handing Walcott his first senior international start in Saturday's 2-0 victory over Andorra, preferring him to David Beckham.

And now the 19-year-old, used mostly on the wing these days by both club and country, is in contention to continue his belated comeback against Croatia in Zagreb on Wednesday — and has enough self-confidence to feel he deserves it.

Walcott said: “I have a lot of experience at England and Arsenal now – obviously I have not played as much as I wanted to – but I deal with the pressure.

“I just play with no fear and this match is not going to bother me at all. I will treat it like any other game. I will just concentrate on my performance – it is the only thing I can do.

“I have been here for a long time; well it feels like that even though I am only 19! So I am just going to take every game as it comes and perform well.

“I give the England team a different aspect by getting behind defenders. There are some world-class players who can also play on the right wing but I give them a different option. I am always trying to go behind defenders because the pace is there.”

Walcott admits his early arrival into the international fold under Eriksson was a shock to the system, but he sees his experience in Germany in 2006 as something positive rather than negative.

“I was star struck at first,” he remembers. “Only 17 and being at the World Cup. It was a brilliant experience for me – so for the next World Cup I will know what it's all about.

“I am still learning my trade, my position and where I am going to play. But it has been a good start to the season at Arsenal this year and I have played most of the games.

“The main thing Arsene Wenger told me was to be more aggressive on the pitch, win the ball back and get at defenders and not to have any fear. That's what I'm doing.

“I've always been a striker but virtually every match I have played right wing for Arsenal this season and it is starting to come naturally to me – I am starting to learn the position a bit more.

“With England in training I have been playing on the right and that suggests I will play on the right in matches. Who knows with more games for Arsenal I will be moved up front but we will see.”

Walcott certainly comes over as a confident young man these days, calmly and jovially dealing with questions in a press conference and deftly swerving the occasional curve-ball thrown by mischievous journalists.

He has faced criticism over his own final ball at Arsenal this season but believes experience and opportunity will turn him into a player to match even the most celebrated in the Premiership.

“Sometimes at the Emirates some people are negative about my final ball; sometimes it's not too bad. But I am learning and I do practise in training every day,” he said.

“I have had quite a few assists as well. The boss knows I'll do it. It is like Cristiano Ronaldo, he came to Manchester United in his first year, showed some brilliant tricks and he is 23 and the best player in the world now. I am not saying I will be like Ronaldo, I will be myself. I will take the positives out of my game.”

If England can take the positives out of Walcott's game and make it count in Zagreb then Fabio Capello may finally have discovered a long-term replacement for David Beckham.

Although even he'll have to admit a certain Mr Eriksson saw him first.

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