London: A stunning first-half hat-trick from Theo Walcott gave Arsenal the perfect Premier League send-off from the Emirates with a 4-1 victory over West Bromwich Albion on Sunday.
Theo Walcott. Pic/AFP
It ensured the Gunners would approach a record 19th FA Cup final appearance on Saturday against Aston Villa, who lost 1-0 to relegated Burnley, in confident mood. Walcott may have reached an impasse with the club over the signing of a new contract - his current Â£100,000-a-week deal expires at the end of the 2015-16 season - but the 26-year-old demonstrated his talent and quality ahead of any summer negotiations with three superbly-taken goals inside the opening 37 minutes.
With Champions League football already secured for a 18th successive year, this rout - Arsenal's joint second biggest victory this calendar year - was arguably the ideal preparation before attempting to defend the FA Cup next Saturday. Arsenal had surprisingly failed to score in their previous three home matches at the Emirates.
Supporters, whose match tickets are some of the most expensive in the country, had sat through 270 minutes of football - against Chelsea, Swansea City and Sunderland - without the pleasure of celebrating a goal. In the fourth minute, following patient build-up on the edge of the penalty area, Santi Cazorla fed in Walcott along the right channel and the unmarked winger hit a venomous right-footed strike that Albion goalkeeper Boaz Myhill had little chance of stopping.
Ten minutes later and that lead was extended when Walcott showed great persistence to skip past one challenge before poking a strike into the bottom corner. They were soon 3-0 up with West Brom shell-shocked. After a corner was not properly cleared, the ball broke loose to Jack Wilshere, standing 20 yards out, and the midfielder thumped it first time left-footed with extraordinary accuracy and power.
It was a real stunner, a wonderful way to mark his 100th Premier League appearance, and the 23-year-old celebrated with physiotherapist Declan Lynch, who had been critical during his rehab from ankle surgery. Three goals in the opening 17 minutes was an unequivocal response to manager Arsene Wenger's pre-match demands that, following the recent goal droughts, his team should display more speed in their passing and more quality in their finishing.
There were further celebrations on 37 minutes when Walcott sealed his hat-trick. It proved to be the easiest of the three as he remained onside before converting Cazorla's driven cross at the back post. It was hard on West Brom given that, since Tony Pulis became manager in January, the club had enjoyed 10 clean sheets in their previous 17 league matches.
This excellent defensive record is the reason they are not embroiled in a relegation battle and started the final afternoon 10 points clear of 18th place. In the opening 15 minutes of the second half, Pulis took off three underperforming players and changed the formation from a defensive 4-5-1 system to a more fluid 3-5-2.
Nigerian striker Victor Anichebe, who replaced Swedish defender Jonas Olsson, had an immediate impact, forcing a save from Arsenal goalkeeper David Ospina on 55 minutes. It was from the resulting corner, delivered expertly by Chris Brunt, that centre-back Gareth McAuley scored with a header. A reminder for Wenger that against Villa his side could be vulnerable at set-pieces. Yet West Brom were fortunate not to lose by more as Aaron Ramsey had three brilliant chances in the closing minutes.