By Chris Harris
It's one thing for an unknown teenager to make his name at Arsenal. But an unheralded goalkeeper in his early 30s? Manuel Almunia is certainly bucking the trend.
The Spaniard enhanced his reputation again on Saturday, saving Robbie Keane's penalty in the North London derby with the scores locked at 1-1 and just 18 minutes to play. Almunia's intervention was the catalyst for a memorable home win as Nicklas Bendtner soared highest to head home the winner.
The Dane, like so many others, arrived at Arsenal with bags of potential but little experience. Almunia, in sharp contrast, looked to have missed the boat when he was plucked from relative obscurity in the summer of 2004. As Celta Vigo's keeper, Almunia was farmed out on loan to Eibar, Recreativo Huelva and Albacete before Wenger took a chance on the then 27-year-old. It looks like the gamble has paid off.
"He came here without a CV but he has made a name for himself, which is not easy at a big club," said Wenger.
"We always knew he was good but we were asking ourselves: 'How can he become the goalkeeper for Arsenal?' He had not played in a big club before and he made a few mistakes but now he looks like he has gained confidence and everyone can see how good he is."
Almunia played second fiddle to Jens Lehmann for three long seasons before grasping his opportunity three games into the current campaign. Wenger believes that the Spaniard is under more pressure than most keepers because the man breathing down his neck has a stack of medals and international caps to his name.
But it's a sign of Almunia's progress that Wenger believes he is good enough to represent his adopted country when the Spaniard qualifies for English citizenship next year.
"Everyone makes mistakes - Reina, van der Sar,
everyone," said Wenger. "But he [Almunia] was under more
pressure than anyone else in the Premier League because he has been
under pressure from an outstanding goalkeeper in Jens Lehmann.
"He has not only a lack of experience but someone behind him who is excellent and that is a tough test. If he has a bad game, he is under pressure to get back to form straight away because he knows who else we have. I don't know about Jens' remarks or not but he has had to deal with it. It's a double-pressure.
"That's the way of things when you are top-level sportsmen: the competition is very strong. It comes from within your camp and also from your opponents.
"I don't know why he hasn't been called up by Spain but all I would say is that England should take advantage of it and call him up."Copyright 2014 The Arsenal Football Club plc. Permission to use quotations from this article is granted subject to appropriate credit being given to www.arsenal.com as the source 24 Dec 2007