Why Arsenal will fear Gareth Bale more than Spurs worry about Theo Walcott
The former Southampton trainees have had contrasting fortunes since heading to opposite sides of the north London divide
IT IS a measure of how much things have changed since this time last year that Theo Walcott will probably be watching from the substitutes’ bench as his old Southampton team-mate Gareth Bale runs out at the Emirates on Saturday.
The pair of 21-year-olds came through the youth ranks at the Saints together and are still firm friends, despite Walcott having left to join the Gunners in January 2006 and Bale following him to the other side of north London in the summer of 2007.
Walcott was Arsenal and England’s star in the making a year ago, ready for a tilt at major honours with the Gunners and then the World Cup finals in South Africa.
Bale, meanwhile, was having at torrid time over at White Hart Lane, where the fact that he had never started on the winning side for Spurs in a Premier League game was weighing heavily on the young Welshman.
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All that has now changed, since Bale finally broke his winless curse against Fulham in January, and has gone from strength to strength since to complete a stellar 2010.
Moved forward from left-back to left-midfield by Harry Redknapp, Bale’s rise to prominence came, much like Walcott’s, with an inspired hat-trick on a foreign field.
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However, while Walcott’s treble in England’s 4-1 triumph in Zagreb in September 2008 has not yet proved to be the catalyst for turning boy into man, Bale’s three goals in Spurs’ 4-3 defeat to Inter Milan in the San Siro last month have proved just that.
A fortnight later, the Welshman ripped through the European champions again, this time in a 3-1 victory on home soil, and Bale-mania had well and truly arrived. Two goals and an assist in Saturday’s 4-2 win over Blackburn proved that Bale does not just have the appetite for the European stage, and the new darling of White Hart Lane admitted after it that he and his club need to show the same consistency if they are to repeat last season’s fourth-placed finish.
“I think it was important that we got that victory before the derby, just to get the winning feeling back, and we’ll be going into Saturday’s game against Arsenal full of confidence, and hopefully we can get the win for us and the fans,” said Bale.
“We’ve been on a little bit of a bad run so it was a much-needed win, particularly for our stability in the league table. It was important to get ourselves kick-started again, and the Champions League is coming around again soon so it’s nice to get that winning feeling back and we want to build on that.
“I think we need to win every game we play at the moment. We’re good enough to beat anybody and we’ve shown that in the past. It will be a massive test obviously, away at the Emirates, but we’ll be ready for it.”
Is Bale ready for the heavy glare of the media spotlight since his breakthrough game in the San Siro, however?
“Off the pitch, I haven’t really paid too much attention to it. Obviously there’s been a lot of stuff said in the papers, but I try to keep myself away from it. It was nice to get back on the pitch and get on the scoresheet at the weekend - and get the vital win, which is the most important thing.”
Walcott admitted that his similar exposure after being picked by Sven-Goran Eriksson for England’s World Cup squad in 2006 came too early.
At 17, he was not ready as a player or a person and some at Arsenal would say that he still wasn’t four years later when Capello left him out of his 23 for last summer’s trip to South Africa.
Walcott is back in favour for England now, but is still finding a place in the Arsenal side harder to nail down.
If Arsene Wenger is tempted to start him on Saturday it could lead to a pace battle on the same flank as Bale.
Walcott was always faster in their Southampton days. On Saturday he would love to get the chance to find out if that is still the case.