PAUL MERSON: Hat trick in Zagreb takes Theo Walcott to new level

Paul Merson has warned Arsenal starlet Theo Walcott to expect some rough treatment from Kazakhstan s defenders when England take on the central Asian minnows in their vital World Cup qualifier at Wembley on Saturday. The former Gunner, who was capped 21 t

Paul Merson has warned Arsenal starlet Theo Walcott to expect some rough treatment from Kazakhstan's defenders when England take on the central Asian minnows in their vital World Cup qualifier at Wembley on Saturday.

The former Gunner, who was capped 21 times by his country, says the 19-year-old attacker must start for the Three Lions after his stunning individual display in last month's 4-1 win in Croatia.

"He is an absolute certainty to play," Merson, 40, told Ham&High Sport.

"The lad has just scored a hat-trick for England away at the fifth-best Fifa-ranked side in the world.

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"Theo's would be the first name down on my team sheet - let him play on that big Wembley pitch and let's see what he can do against the Kazakhstan defence."

But Merson, who met the new Arsenal No.14 in the summer at the launch of the new yellow away kit, is quick to add a cautionary note with the eyes of England's ever-demanding fans on the Gunners' teenage sensation.

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It won't, he says, be a stroll in the park for him from now on.

"Theo is a charming and grounded young man," explained Merson. "But that treble in Zagreb propelled him to the next level and what he must understand is that from now on he will be targeted.

"Defenders will be wanting to hurt him and opposition managers will be trying to snuff him out of the game - we saw that to an extent in Croatia.

"Also, and this goes with the territory, every single flaw in his game will be magnified and exposed.

"He has finally progressed and had a great game in Croatia. But, and Theo will know this himself, he is not the finished article yet."

Walcott, though, has reportedly been the subject of, as one national broadsheet described it this week, a "custody tug-of-war" with both Under-21s manager Stuart Pearce and Fabio Capello, head coach of the seniors, wanting him this weekend.

The Under-21s take on Wales in the first-leg of a vital Euro play-off on Friday night and Pearce was keen to take him, but Capello, unsurprisingly, won the battle and Walcott travels to the national stadium on Saturday teatime and then to Minsk the following Wednesday for another qualifier against ex-Emirates team-mate Alexander Hleb's Belarus.

"Theo is ready, for sure," said Capello this week. "He has to play for the seniors."

Last month, Walcott became the first Arsenal player to score a hat-trick for England since Ian Wright back in November 1993 in a 7-1 win in San Marino. Ted Drake is the only other Gunner to net a treble for the Three Lions, against Hungary 60 years ago.

Walcott's club boss, Arsene Wenger, had said before that, after such a display, it would be hard for Walcott to return to the Under-21s. "When a player goes from a top team to the Under-21s with all the examples I have seen it doesn't really work," he said.

"I have seen it many times with young players and it has never worked very well."

Gunners keeper Manuel Almunia believes the reason for Walcott's scintillating early-season form is a new tough new streak.

"Theo was too nice maybe in the last two years, but this season you can see that when he gets tackled he gets furious, and that shows you he has changed," said Almunia.

"When he used to take a tackle he did not reply with anything, he did not say anything to the referee or the opposing player. He would get tackled and stay on the floor, and he would never say anything. Now I like him more on the field.

"I just spoke with him once. I told him he had to be a bit more aggressive, and not so nice on the pitch, because if people can kill you they will do so."

The 31-year-old Spaniard, who is believed to be coveting an England place when he becomes eligible next year after living in the UK for five years and marrying an English women, added: "I can only say that Theo is beautiful playing football. To me he is like a machine, it's unbelievable.

"I enjoy it a lot when I see Theo playing in training, and also because he is a very nice guy.

"He is by far the most exciting young English player I have ever seen. His skills are incredible and I am sure that over 100 metres he would get a good time. With the ball also he is very good technically.

"He has a lot of discipline; he is a very complete player. Theo is growing up and I think it's going to be great for England."

And Merson even believes Walcott could be more effective for country than club.

"It's all about pace and in Croatia Theo was allowed to really open up and have a good run at the defenders," he said.

"Arsenal is very much about one and two-touch football, playing through defences.

"But with England he can use that raw pace to devastating effect - he has the talent and now, gradually, is beginning to get the confidence to dominate games."

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