Szczesney injury puts Almunia back into Arsenal spotlight

As the recriminations over Arsenal’s Champions League knockout at the hands of Barcelona continue, there may be one positive for Arsene Wenger to take from the match. Despite losing the Gunners’ first-choice goalkeeper, Wojciech Szczesney, to a dislocated finger, the form showed by Manuel Almunia after replacing the Poland international should offer some encouragement to Wenger.

Almunia may have conceded three times but if not for the Spaniard and a series of fine saves, Arsenal would have been out of the tie long before the final whistle blew. The BBC’s Chris Bevan noted during the game: “…Manuel Almunia…has been superb for Arsenal tonight,” while the Guardian’s Barney Ronay described one stop by the goalkeeper as “…brilliant and brave,” adding: “Almunia is on fire.” But much of the story of Almunia’s career in England is of impressive saves spoiled by basic errors, such as the mistakes against West Bromwich Albion in September that brought an end to his time as Arsenal’s No 1.

Arsenal lost 3-2 to the Baggies, at home, and after the match Wenger said: “It was a poor performance, defensively and offensively. Not one player performed to their level.” While the Frenchman did not single Almunia out for criticism explicitly the BBC’s report on the game was not so kind. “But [Almunia] was clearly at fault for West Brom’s second…The Spaniard fumbled [Jara’s] shot…as he crouched to gather the ball,” wrote Les Roopanarine, later adding: “Almunia was equally at fault for the visitors’ third.” After the West Brom debacle Almunia did not feature in the Arsenal starting XI until January 30, when he kept goal against Huddersfield Town in the FA Cup.

In the three months that Almunia warmed the bench, first Lukasz Fabianski and then the now-injured Szczesney took over the gloves. Fabianski has, much like Almunia, veered between excellence and ineptitude for much of this season. The excellence most notably came in the Champions League against Partizan Belgrade, when Wenger said of the goalkeeper’s performance: “Fabianski had a good game. He had a faultless game,” following a saved penalty in a 3-1 away win, days after Almunia’s West Brom nightmare.

But in early November Fabianksi also slipped against a newly promoted side as Arsenal lost at home again, this time to Newcastle United, when his charge towards an incoming free-kick was misjudged and allowed Andy Carroll to head the Magpies in front. There have perhaps been as many highs as lows for Fabianski this season, including a man of the match award against Everton, but in January a shoulder injury ended his season early.

Ironically, Fabianski was hurt saving a Szczesney shot during the warm-up. Shortly after, the younger Pole was confirmed as first-choice by Wenger, who said: “He has done nothing for me to take him out.” But the 20-year-old did combine with Laurent Koscielny to hand Birmingham City the Carling Cup and, with only two months between now and the end of the season, is likely to miss the majority of the run-in. The spotlight then falls back on Almunia, but if his performance in the Nou Camp is any guide, Arsenal might be in safe hands.

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