Football: `There was silence. People had their shower and went home'
PREMIERSHIP INTERVIEW: After a difficult few days for him and his team, the Arsenal goalkeeper Manuel Almunia talks to Sam Wallace about how they will respond to Tuesday's shattering defeat by Manchester United
The change in Almunia's professional life took place in May after a season in which he had finally made his name in Spanish football by helping Albacete, from Valencia, fight their annual battle against relegation. At the end of the season, he married his girlfriend Ana and the couple set off on a honeymoon in southern Italy. They had made it as far as a cruise off the island of Capri when Almunia's agent called to tell him that Arsenal had agreed a fee with Celta Vigo, the team to which he was signed but for whom he had never played.
At 27, with a career spent in the hinterland of Spanish football, he did not need to be asked twice to abandon his holiday for a club that had kept their interest in him covert. "When there was a few games to go at the end of the season, I became increasingly aware of Arsenal's interest and that they had been watching me," Almunia says. "When they made an offer I had to get the first motor boat back from Capri, packed my cases and came straight to London. My wife wasn't upset, she was the first to pack. She wanted us to come here more than anything.
"The initial rumours about Arsenal's interest in me weren't taken very seriously but when the transfer actually happened it was a big surprise: for my wife, for my family and Spanish football fans in general. Not many Spanish players come here because we have such an important league at home. But it was also a surprise for me because I never expected to be signed by a club like Arsenal."
Of English footballers, Almunia has the vaguest memories, from when he was a child growing up in Pamplona, of Sammy Lee and Michael Robinson coming to Osasuna to end their careers. But what he really craved was to play for a team that had a real following, not just a side at the end of the Primera Liga or in the Second Division B, where, he admits, the locals are all really Real Madrid or Barcelona fans at heart.
It was the eighth club of his young career, but there was no doubt that it was the most important. Just as Almunia had found wherever he moved, what awaited him was the understudy's role. But this time, he was being asked to dislodge a goalkeeper, in Jens Lehmann, who had never lost a Premiership match. And yet, by 4 December, he had taken over as the senior goalkeeper. The decline of the champions, and the indifferent form of their German goalkeeper, meant that by the time Arsenal faced Birmingham at home Almunia was their first choice.
For the last 12 games of his career, including the nerve-shredding defeat to Manchester United to Highbury on Tuesday, he has been Arsenal's No 1 goalkeeper, a job that, over the last two months, has subjected him to more public scrutiny than the average Cabinet minister might expect. He has gone from the tail end of the Primera Liga to a central role in one of the most engrossing teams of the modern era in less than six months and it has not all been easy. But then, as a man who has run with the bulls in Pamplona, he knows the value of staying calm.
It is universally acknowledged that victory over Aston Villa this evening will be crucial if Arsene Wenger's side are to rise again after Tuesday night. You do not need a schooling in English football, or even a grasp of the English language, to know how much the defeat to United at Highbury meant to Arsenal. At home with his wife in St Albans in the week leading up to the match, Almunia says that he tried his best to ignore the endless television previews and pre-match coverage. But back in the changing rooms after the match it was the absence of words that were his prevailing memory of the occasion.
"Silence," he says. "It was very difficult. People just had their shower and went home. Everyone had their heads down, we were all deep in thought, thinking about our own individual responsibilities. What we had done well, what we had done badly. No one was shouting, no one was arguing. It doesn't do any good shouting, you do the best to make sure that the next game turns out better.
"It doesn't do any good if the manager starts having a go at the players or if the captain decides to start shouting the odds. I don't think the manager has ever done that, he didn't do it then and I don't think he ever will. Quite apart from that, you have a side absolutely packed full of superstars. I don't think they are the kind of players who need to be told."
Almunia knows that the question about United's third goal is coming and he accepts it with good grace. His side had been pegged back to 2-2 by Cristiano Ronaldo's equaliser 10 minutes after half-time and then, three minutes later, the Portuguese winger scored again. This time it was a tap-in at the far post after the Arsenal goalkeeper had rushed to the left side of the area but failed to stop Ryan Giggs crossing the ball across an empty goal. Almunia's answer is honest, but it is not despairing.
"It is the way I play that I like to head off counter-attacks and try to intercept through-balls that are played inside the full-back," Almunia said. "On that occasion it turned out badly that I came out, I would have been better off staying in my area. I went with my instinct but once you are out of your goal you have to carry on and try to block the cross as best as you can. He [Giggs] managed to put over a tremendous cross which almost went in the goal itself.
"Once you have made your mind up to come out of the area there is no point back-pedalling, you have to go for it. I've come out of my goal lots of times this season and it has been fine. Occasionally you make the wrong choice. People can make mistakes in life - I am not alone in that and I am no different.
"It's not easy [to accept defeat], it was a big blow. Although Chelsea are quite a distance from both of us there is a serious rivalry between Arsenal and Manchester United. It wasn't an easy result to take. Even more so because after the first half we were ahead and the scoreline was in our favour. We had a very good first half and then we threw it all away. It's hard to explain how that happened."
And then his mood of gloom clears. Almunia is from Pamplona in Navarra, a region the Basques claim for their own, and these are not a race of people who, my interpreter points out, allow themselves to live under a cloud for long. The antidote to Arsenal's season, Almunia says, is simple: they have to return to a time when they took pleasure in their performances and when the pre-occupation with Chelsea's lead was not all-consuming. "We have to enjoy it and win as many games as we can," he says, "and, more importantly, we have a match against Bayern Munich in the Champions' League which is like a final in itself. That's a big game for us."
When he started as a 20-year-old with Osasuna B in the Spanish Second Division, Almunia, like his team-mates, had to agree to a clause in his contract not to participate in July's traditional San Fermin festival when the locals run with the bulls in the streets of Pamplona. It was not an unreasonable request, and one you could also imagine Wenger insisting upon. The Arsenal manager was the first top coach in Europe to spot Almunia's potential and he was a key part of why a move to Arsenal was so attractive to the goalkeeper.
"He is a very different manager to what I have experienced in Spain," Almunia says. "He gives a lot of freedom to each player. He's not a manager who is in your face all the time and giving instructions, in fact he goes about his work very quietly. He's always doing stuff but you hardly realise it. He knows his players and he is always around at training. He doesn't say a lot but he always says the required amount."
It was after defeat to Liverpool at Anfield on 28 November that Wenger dropped his first-choice goalkeeper and gave Almunia his chance. Almunia trains with Lehmann every day and there can be no ignoring the fact that the 35-year-old German is unhappy about his relegation to the bench. But Almunia has been a reserve goalkeeper himself long enough not to allow the claims of another affect his own performance.
"I don't know whether it's because it is different in Spain, or because I played for a smaller club, but over there [Spain] we train together and go for a coffee after training," he says. "The relationship between the players is very warm and friendly, particularly the goalkeepers. Myself and Jens have a professional relationship, we train together and get on fine and that's all."
Almunia's Arsenal career began with three games over seven days in three different competitions. There was defeat to Manchester United in the Carling Cup, victory over Birmingham in the Premiership and then a 5-1 win over Rosenborg in the Champions' League that made safe Arsenal's passage into the knock-out round. It was not a flawless start - Almunia was at fault for David Bellion's goal at Old Trafford and Harald Brattbakk's in Norway - but there was plenty in his performances that suggested he would survive at the highest level.
All that Almunia asks for is that he is given a chance to prove himself in a profession that - as United's Tim Howard and Jerzy Dudek at Liverpool have discovered - can be unforgiving. "Even though you might not have had a good career or be a big name, the first thing you should have for a person is respect for his work," he says. "I respect everyone and in that sense I think I am a good person: I have the highest respect for anyone's work: whether he is a player or a bricklayer.
"Even though the team was struggling it was still not easy to become the Arsenal goalkeeper - being chosen as the No 1 was something I hadn't expected. From a psychological point of view it was hard to play in three such demanding games in seven days and I was mentally very tired. I felt I had done well and that I had the confidence of my team-mates. I felt happy with the way I had established myself."
Most of all though, he is happy at Arsenal; glad that he interrupted his honeymoon to go there, glad that he is at last in a team at the top in Europe. In fact he answers with the Spanish colloquialism "Estoy disfrutando como un enano" or, literally, "I'm as happy as a dwarf." It tests the interpreter to his limits, but he comes up with the perfect English equivalent: "I'm as happy as a sandboy." Either way, Almunia's not beaten yet.
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