Arsenal advance to UCL group stage
Theo Walcott outlined Arsenal’s desire to step up and truly "challenge" for major trophies after they sealed a 16th straight qualification for the Champions League group stage.
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Speaking after the 2-0 win over Turkish side Fenerbahce -- which completed a 5-0 aggregate triumph -- the England winger said it was up to him and his team-mates to demand more of themselves in the coming season, and to become a genuine contender domestically and continentally.
"For a club like this," Walcott said, "with the stadium, the support that we have -- we have to be that. We don't want to be [just] challenging for that fourth spot anymore. We want to challenge for the Premier League and that's our main goal.
"We know Arsenal's a massive club and where we need to be. What we need to do is get to the next level and compete a little bit more -- not just getting into the Champions League. The next step is to compete."
A return to Europe’s elite club competition is crucial in the continued development of Arsene Wenger’s side, according to Walcott, and he pointed out the improving form of midfielder Aaron Ramsey, the scorer of three goals across the two Fenerbahce matches, as evidence of that.
"In the Champions League you're playing against the best players in Europe," Walcott said, "and you want to be judged on that. If you play against the best players, you're only going to improve yourself and I think you can see a lot of improvements on a few players this year and especially Aaron. He's worked very hard pre-season.
"He ended the season last year very, very well, but this season he's just taken off and hit a new level. It's great to see because he deserves it after a lot of injury problems. I'm very happy for him."
Even if Arsenal’s heavy first-leg win in Istanbul rather skewed the atmosphere of the return, 24-year-old Walcott said the generally assured manner of their performance in London was a sign of their current fluency.
"We're playing good football," he said, "and we're starting to take our chances now as well. It wasn't the best spectacle but we did the job. We didn't want to be complacent -- that was the main task at the start of it. I felt that in the first half we are a bit sloppy, to be honest, but we got out in the second half and we were just very professional."
Walcott expects the next visitors to the Emirates to put up rather more of a fight, with local rivals Tottenham the opponents on Sunday afternoon.
"Tottenham’s a big test," he said. "We know their strengths and we just have to make sure we utilise their weaknesses. They’ve invested well; they’ve got some very good players and a very good manager as well, but we need to make sure we focus on ourselves -- and the way we’re playing at the moment, we can beat anyone."
Despite Tottenham’s busy transfer window contrasting sharply with a quiet summer for the Arsenal club chequebook, Walcott believes his side have the quality required to take local bragging rights.
"Every club’s different," he insisted. "They’ve invested their money very well, but for us players, we go out there and do a job on Sunday. We don’t care who we’re playing against -- whether they’ve brought in £30 million stars, it doesn’t matter. We just want to focus on our game, especially at home, I feel we can win."
"I feel that we’re very, very strong," Walcott continued. "Everyone may say that our squad’s very weak and that there’s not many of us, but I think we’ve showed in the last few games that we could bounce back from a very disappointing result in the first game. We’ve proved a lot of people wrong. We just have to make sure we step up on Sunday."
The game will mark a change for Walcott, with his habitual opponent on the Tottenham left, Gareth Bale, expected to have completed a transfer to Real Madrid before the weekend.
"He’s still at Tottenham at the moment," Walcott stressed. "It’s been going on a very long time -- it looks like it’s going to happen but if he’s not there, it’ll be very odd not seeing him in a Tottenham shirt and not playing against him.
"I’m very happy for him and hopefully he can do well," Walcott said, quickly adding "if he stays or goes."