Almunia: 'Pressure left us feeling lost on big night at Old Trafford'

Goalkeeper admits Arsenal's young squad failed to rise to the occasion against United
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The Independent Football

Manuel Almunia rose to the occasion of Wednesday night's Champions League semi-final at Manchester United as befits a man with a taste for Pamplona's notorious San Fermin bull run festival.

As a teenager Almunia regularly used to join the inebriated thrill-seekers running with the animals through the streets of his home town, so he was never likely to be fazed by the mere matter of a last-four contest with the reigning European Champions at Old Trafford.

Almunia's nerveless performance kept the score down to just 1-0, despite United's almost total dominance. Sadly for the Arsenal manager, Arsène Wenger, the imposing goalkeeper's young team-mates failed to come close to matching his calm composure in the fevered atmosphere.

The 31-year-old Spaniard was the oldest player in the Arsenal starting XI on Wednesday, when the average age of their outfield players was 23.4. Almunia admitted the enormity of the game got to some of the side's inexperienced members, who were "lost" for the opening quarter of the match.

Almunia said: "We were surprised at how they played but some of our players were maybe lost at the beginning. That's normal. It's a big competition, it's a big semi-final and you expect a lot of pressure on the players. I don't know how every player felt inside but it's a big pressure on everybody but I still think we should have the experience to face these sort of games.

"I think everybody was looking forward to this game for such a long time," he added, "and then you put everything into the game on the pitch and sometimes your head doesn't respond enough to your desire."

Almunia's honesty in accepting that Wenger's side froze at Old Trafford is commendable but is not likely to be well received within the Arsenal dressing room. For the last few months Wenger has repeated the mantra that his team have the mental strength to compete at this elevated level.

The Arsenal manager was at it again in the immediate aftermath of Wednesday's defeat, inviting a journalist who raised the question of the team's character to come to the press conference after next Tuesday's return leg at the Emirates Stadium by which time, Wenger insisted, all doubts will have been erased.

Almunia said Arsenal will lose if they allow their nerves to get the better of them again. "Maybe Manchester United are stronger than us but in terms of desire nobody can beat us. That's what we have to do at the Emirates," he said.

"We have to show our desire to win because this is the only trophy that we have left this season. We will see if our desire is enough on Tuesday, but if you don't play in these sort of games then you are lost."

Dressing-room honesty has been a theme of Arsenal's season. William Gallas was stripped of the captaincy following his accusations in November that his team-mates lacked bravery. Almunia risks picking over old wounds with his candid assessment of the team's lack of bottle.

Wenger made Cesc Fabregas captain in Gallas's place, and the Spaniard was one of the few Arsenal players not to be overwhelmed at Old Trafford. In fact, afterwards he even claimed the visitors had been the better side, despite the overwhelming evidence, although he did admit the Gunners need to work on their finishing.

"They had the best chances, that's true, but as soon as we played the ball, we were the better team," Fabregas said. "We need to be more clinical in front of goal, that's for sure. There were moments in the game where we passed the ball a lot and we combined very well but we are not clinical enough in front of goal. That's what we definitely have to improve because now we know for sure that we have to score.

"I think United are an amazing side, they have a lot of experienced players, they will know how to do their game. We have to focus on our game and we need to go to attack and we are capable of that. It's up to us now to do well at the Emirates and beat them."

Fabregas also protested his innocence after being charged with improper conduct by the Football Association over accusations he spat at Hull's assistant manager, Brian Horton. "My mind and my heart will be relaxed because I have not done anything wrong," he said. "Well, I came to the pitch, then eight players were on the pitch as well so, then everyone should be suspended for that."

23.4 years

Average age of Arsenal's outfield players against Manchester United at Old Trafford on Wednesday.