He is a Spanish waiter called Manuel; he waits and waits for Jens Lehmann to miss a match or two. Fortunately, Manuel Almunia, Arsenal's second-choice goalkeeper, is more reliable than Andrew Sachs' inspired comic creation and has a rather less demented boss than Basil Fawlty. Unlike the other, much put-upon Manuel, he would just like to be on duty more often.
It is a frustrating job being the No 2 gloveman. Train all week alongside the man keeping you from playing; encourage him before kick-off; then sit on the bench knowing your chance will only come if he suffers an injury or is sent off. Club managers, for some reason, will never substitute a goalkeeper to give the understudy some playing time; increasingly, reserve-team football is out of the question too.
In his first season after leaving Celta Vigo for Arsenal, Almunia – from Pamplona, not Barcelona – enjoyed a run of 10 games when Lehmann was dropped. But after conceding four goals at home to Manchester United he was left out, and in two subsequent full seasons played only one Premier League game, against Liverpool.
Taking over for 72 minutes of the Champions' League final against Barcelona (and conceding two goals) after Lehmann's red card was little consolation. This afternoon, with a new campaign less than a month old, he hopes to follow last weekend's appearance at home to Manchester City with another one against Portsmouth. On Wednesday night there was also a second successive clean sheet against Sparta Prague, after which he spoke of the vexation of being what he neatly terms "a cup goalkeeper".
"It's always frustrating, even more after three years behind Jens, but I know from when I was young this fact that keeper is the most difficult place in football. When the season started, I didn'texpect to play. Jens played the first game and the only thing I could do was wait for the Carling Cup. I was waiting until September. Every morning I woke up and thought, 'I won't play until September'. That's very hard."
Not wanting to escalate the rivalry with Lehmann ("we respect each other and do our job, there's no problem") he doesn't refer to the German's ghastly errors in allowing David Dunn's shot through his hands at Blackburn, costing Arsenal two points, the week after gifting Fulham a goal in the opening seconds of the season. Theofficial club line is that Lehmann suffered a recurrence of an Achilles problem playing for Germany at Wembley (of which there was no sign at the time). Other reportssaid he stomped away from the training ground in a huffafter being left out.
Almunia, now sporting a blond "beach look" at his wife's suggestion, has taken his chance well. Although rarely tested by either City or Sparta, he did what was required by making one important save in each game. "I've been not playing for a long time. So two consecutive games give me confidence to be ready for the next game. I have possibilities to defend the Arsenal No 1 shirt. I think I deserve it. I've played two games and did well, the boss has much confidence in me and I feel it's increasing."
It is indeed, so much so that Arsène Wenger praised him as "outstanding" against City and said Lehmann, who will be 38 in November, could not automatically expect his place back. "We are in a competitive world and he [Almunia] has to have a chance," the manager added.
The crunch will come shortly when Lehmann is fully fit and remotivated. Then Almunia will discover whether he was right to turn down approaches from several "medium-sized" Spanish clubs who wanted to take him home this summer. "When the season started and I wasn't playing, I was thinking of leaving. When you don't play, always in your mind is the possibility that you can leave. I saw the bench again and that made it a difficult start to the season and my mind was down because a few teams called me to go to Spain, but I promised the boss at the end of last season that I'd like to stay here a long time with him. Arsenal is the biggest club in the world for me and the best club I've ever known. It would be very difficult to leave, because they gave me everything."
"The biggest club in the world" – it might be David Dein talking. The former vice-chairman, awaiting the time when combining with Stan Kroenke and buying out Danny Fiszman would give his new Russian-backed consortium 50.98 per cent of the shares, lurks in the wings. For once, Almunia is centre stage.
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