Out of the first choice goalkeepers of the top four clubs in England, Manuel Almunia has always been cast as the ugly duckling. But that may be about to change. After seeing off his bitter rival Jens Lehmann last year, the Spaniard has made the number one jersey his own and has repaid Arsene Wenger’s belief in him.
Last week he played arguably his best game so far for the Gunners, when he captained them during their 5-2 demolition of Fenerbache and he will be hoping to continue that form tonight in the North London Derby.
Aged 21, Manchester United’s Edwin Van Der Saar was a regular with Ajax, Petr Cech was playing with Rennes in France and establishing himself as the best young goalkeeper in Europe and Liverpool’s Pepe Reina was on periphery of the Barcelona first team.
Where was Manuel Almunia when he was 21? He was playing for the Osasuna B team. With first team chances limited, he was loaned out to lower league club, FC Cartagena, before leaving Osasuna to join CE Sabadell in the Spanish second division.
After one season in Catalonia, the 6ft 3in Spaniard was on the move again, this time to Celta Vigo. He again failed to establish himself and was sent out on loan for three consecutive seasons without ever making an appearance for the Celta first team.
It was on one of these loan spells where Almunia caught the eye of Arsenal’s Spanish scouts, when during the 2003-2004 season he helped newly promoted Albacete to a 14th place finish.
Even the player himself was shocked at the interest from the then newly crowned Premier League champions and jumped at the chance to move to London. He even cut short his honeymoon in Naples, Italy, to travel to London for a medical.
Over Wenger’s time at Arsenal we have become accustomed to the fact that he rarely goes for big name signings. However this is particularly true when signing defenders or goalkeepers. Almunia was bought with the future in mind and also because he was available at a low price of £2m.
Between the sticks is the one place Wenger prefers experience over youth and the man from Pamplona has had to bide his time since joining the club. In front of him was Jens Lehmann and the relationship between the two was very much like the German’s relationship with everyone else, frosty to say the least.
Lehmann thrives on conflict and endured a similar but more high profile feud with his rival for the German number 1 spot with Oliver Kahn. The irony of the situation was that Lehmann was always in Kahn’s shadow until he finally convinced the national team manager Jurgen Kilnsmann to start him for the 2006 World Cup. He would be up surged by Almunia in a very similar way just one year later.
Almunia’s confidence grew in the games he deputised for Lehmann and was soon pressurising Wenger to start in his place. After Lehmann made mistakes against Fulham and Blackburn at the beginning of last season, Wenger replaced the big German with the big Spaniard and Almunia has never looked back.
Lehmann couldn’t believe he had been dropped, especially for Almunia. He said at the time: “To be sitting on the bench behind somebody who only started to play when he was 30 is not funny.”
Almunia’s form over the last year has brought up the topic of international football. With Iker Casillas and Pepe Reina in front of him, it is highly unlikely that he will ever get the chance to represent his country. However next year he will qualify for British citizenship and with it comes the possibility of representing his adopted country, England.
He said: “The opportunity is there and I’ll follow it for as long as the possibility of playing for England remains open. I don’t think playing for Spain is an option, they have enough ‘keepers, it’s not their biggest problem. If I got a British passport then I would be able to play for England and, at the moment, I feel very English.”
While a large number of Brazilians have change nationality, the chances of Alumina representing England are very slim. Both the media and the fans wouldn’t accept it. Adjusting to having a foreign manager was hard enough, never mind foreign players.
But the fact that people are talking about him as an option is a huge compliment to Almunia and he deserves a lot of credit for the mature way he handle the Lehmann dispute and also for how hard he has worked to not only get into the Arsenal team but also show that he deserves to be there.
In soccer, as in all walks of life, there are many different paths that can ultimately lead to the top. Almunia’s route may have been longer and less straightforward than his rivals but that he got there in the end is all that matters.