It's been a 'nightmare' but Almunia now dreams of beating Chelsea

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The Independent Football

The Spanish goalkeeper Manuel Almunia has known difficult times in his four years with Arsenal, so for him to admit that the past fortnight has been the worst of all confirms the tensions existing inside and outside the dressing room. Almunia's hope is that this afternoon's derby at Chelsea will be the start of a happier new chapter, but his reluctance to regard the late win over Dynamo Kiev last Tuesday as a turning point just yet suggests all is still not sweetness and light.

That flash of Nicklas Bendtner's pink boots against the Ukrainians brought a first goal in more than five hours of football after successive defeats by Aston Villa and Manchester City, in which Almunia was beaten five times. It was a relief, he said, "because it's been the two worst weeks in my career at Arsenal. The last two weeks have been a nightmare for us. We needed to win but we couldn't get the right performance and we didn't know what to do. We couldn't find the right way to play, we couldn't play as Arsenal know to do.

"It's been frustrating for me and for the team, of course. This was a step forward for the confidence of the team and against Chelsea I hope we can face them in the right way".

Any Gooners believing the worst is behind them now, with Cesc Fabregas named as captain and his predecessor, William Gallas, apparently buckling down, should note this warning from the man who wore the armband in between times, for the demoralising defeat by City: "The situation didn't change yet. I think the situation will change when we react in the Premier League.

"The Champions' League is different and Dynamo Kiev is not Chelsea. We will see against Chelsea whether this team knows how to react or not. We are in the same place as before this game. The victory is giving us confidence but not changing the situation. We know our situation in the League and we have to react. A win at Chelsea would be a first step."

On the change in captaincy, Spanish Manuel did not quite claim "he know naathing", but was more reticent. "I can't speak about that," he said. "It's the boss's decision. We will have a good relationship with Cesc, we had a good relationship with Gallas. Gallas has been a great captain, and I'm confident that William is going to help Cesc.

"Cesc was the same as normal [as captain]. Maybe I saw in his face some more responsibility. But he's mature enough to cope with this. He has the spirit, he has the ability, all the capacity to be a great captain for Arsenal. All he needs is to be a bit lucky and for the team to follow him in a good way. We will try to follow him as we tried to follow William Gallas in the past. A captain is nothing without other team-mates. Cesc is still young and it's a big responsibility, but me and the other team-mates are going to help Cesc and we're going to lead Arsenal."

It was mature and sensible talk from the man who, three months older than Gallas and Mikaël Silvestre, is now the senior citizen at Arsenal following the departure last summer of his old (and older) rival Jens Lehmann.

At one point after the German had been dropped, the pair were not talking to each other at all, which must have made training sessions a little strained. In the end, however, Almunia, who had effectively become the No 1 after the first two games of last season, said of the parting that – if it was not exactly Romeo and Juliet's sweet sorrow – "it finished on a good note".

The same could be said of Tuesday's game, seeing Arsenal through to the second stage of the Champions' League for the ninth successive season. Chelsea, as he says, are something else, and "Stamford Bridge is a very hard place to play, a very hard place to win.

"But Liverpool won there this season so why can't Arsenal do it? Against Manchester [United] we showed with great spirit, with great fight, with concentration, with everything a footballer has to have, we can beat anybody.

"But every single player has to think in every single game what to do and where we are. We are one of the top clubs in the world and I think the players have to think about that."

The world's top clubs, alas, should not be losing to Hull City, Stoke City and Fulham. Chelsea may be this week's crisis club, at least until 6pm this evening, but one key area in which they are superior to Arsenal is demonstrated by the way Nicolas Anelka, who was once an Arsène Wenger protégé, has taken over the scoring mantle from a disaffected Didier Drogba. In the teams' last meeting, in March, Drogba won the game with two late goals as Arsenal's defence was terrorised by long balls played up to him.

In Drogba's absence through suspension today, the approach will remain more subtle and Anelka will be looking to add to an impressive tally of 14 goals this season. Would that Arsenal could say something similar since Bendtner, the Pink Panther, was brought in to replace the injured Emmanuel Adebayor.

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