By Richard Clarke
Theo Walcott began this game as a boyish Arsenal talent, he finished it as a full-fledged member of this emerging side.
The 18-year-old was playing only his second game up front under Arsène Wenger but he put in a manful display. Although the goals were shared between Walcott, Alex Hleb, Cesc Fabregas and Nicklas Bendtner, it was the former Southampton man who took the eye.
After the Spaniard and the Belarussian had give Arsenal a two-goal cushion, Walcott was hand his first by an errant backpass just before the interval.
Hleb steered home a fourth after the restart and then set-up Walcott for his stylish second and his side’s fifth. Fabregas rounded off the best move of the night with a sixth just before the hour. And, when substitute Bendtner scuffed home a seventh in the dying seconds, it equalled Arsenal’s best ever victory in European competition.
That came at Standard Liege in the early rounds of the 1993-94 Cup-Winners’ Cup — a trophy that Arsenal would lift that season.
However Wenger has another record in his sights just now. This was the club’s 12th straight win. Their best is 14 which was set in season 1987-88.
They will have to beat Liverpool and Manchester United to overtake that. In truth, those tests will be 10 times harder than tonight’s but all signs are good.
The only change in Wenger’s line-up was Walcott’s elevation up front alongside Emmanuel Adebayor with Eduardo dropping to the bench. The manager had said he would use the youngster through the middle this season and so this was perhaps the perfect opportunity. Arsenal had the cushion of two straight wins in Group H.
However if both those games had been stern tests, many predicted this would be more straightforward - and so it proved.
The home side took the lead after only five minutes. Hleb bamboozled a couple of defenders on the wing then thread an eye-of-the-needle pass to Fabregas just inside the area. The Spaniard looked up and curled home his eighth goal of the season into the far corner of the net.
In the 13th minute Milan Ivana crossed low for David Kalivoda to fire inches over the bar.
But Arsenal responded with a couple of Adebayor headers from Gael Clichy crosses. Although on neither occasion was the final execution as good as the build up. At this point the home side were in control if a little lacklustre. How that would change.
In the end the home side were handed a second goal in the 24th minute. Fabregas took a corner on the right. The sliding Michal Svec nearly turned the ball into his own net at the near post but somehow diverted the ball to the back of the area.
It ran loose for a second before Hleb pounced. His shot deflected off Daniel Pudil and then David Hubacek en route to the corner of the net. Arsenal had barely stumbled out of second gear but were in possession of a seemingly unassailable lead.
In the 28th minute Walcott raced clear in the left-hand channel and crossed high for Adebayor to nod down powerfully. Keeper Martin Vaniak kicked the ball off his own line.
Matej Krajcik’s drive from distance then stretched Almunia. But until this point Slavia’s precious few chances had been pot-shots and anything they achieved was immediately undermined by their ponderous defence.
The ultimate example came three minutes before the break. Daniel Pudil was cornered on the touchline just inside his own half and decided to pass back to Vaniak. The keeper’s terrible touch handed the ball to Walcott. He had the simple job of skipping past and slotting his shot home from just outside the area.
Adeabyor’s header almost provided a fourth and, on the whistle, Eboue stylishly slithered past his marker before curling a vicious cross just past the angle of post and bar.
The onslaught continued after the break. Six minutes in a sweeping move by Eboue and Fabergas sent Hleb through. The Belarussian cut inside and drove home right-footed. It was his fourth goal of the season.
Four minutes later wonderful interplay allowed Hleb to send Walcott sprinting clear who turned on the turbo before prodding a shot against the post. The youngster had trebled his Arsenal tally in the course of 55 minutes this evening.
Slavia were a spent force and more goals looked likely. It took only a further three minutes.
Hleb sprinted up the right and passed inside the Adebayor who fooled his marker and spread the ball wide to Walcott. He cushioned a first-touch pass into the path of the sprinting Fabregas who slotted home with ease.
With one eye on the weekend trip to Anfield, Wenger then withdrew Adebayor, Flamini and Hleb for Bendtner, Gilberto and Tomas Rosicky.
The underemployed Almunia then made a sharp save from Krajcik’s cross-shot and then Stanislav Vlcek’s drive
But nine minutes from time Walcott was denied his hat-trick by a one-handed save from Vaniak. The ball bounced out for Rosicky to hammer a shot against the bar.
A minute from time, Bendtner stabbed home a shot from close range for a record-breaking seventh.
An incredible night.
- Clichy Yellow Card
- Fabregas Goal! Goal!
- Walcott Goal! Goal!
- Flamini 61 Yellow Card
- Hleb 61 Goal! Yellow Card
- Adebayor 61
- Silva 61
- Rosicky 61
- Bendtner 61 Goal!
- Ivana 56
- Kalivoda 46
- Jablonsky 46
- Volesak 56 Yellow Card