Wenger lays down Almunia challenge

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The Independent Online

Arsene Wenger has challenged Manuel Almunia to prove he is still Arsenal number one.

The veteran Spaniard is scheduled to return to full training with the squad next week following an elbow problem, with understudy Lukasz Fabianski set to be in goal again at Everton on Sunday.



The Pole has impressed since standing in after Almunia was sidelined at the end of September, redeeming himself in part for the high-profile error against Newcastle with a man-of-the-match display in the 2-0 midweek win at Wolves.



Yesterday, Arsenal announced 20-year-old Wojciech Szczesny had signed a new long-term deal.



Wenger, though, insisted he offered no guarantees of first-team football to any player - with selection based purely on performance.



"Of course Almunia has a future at the club. He has been out for a long time, but he must come back and shows the performances in training and his quality," the Arsenal manager said.



"You can never stop a player from playing."



Wenger rejected suggestions he would allow Almunia to leave during January.



"At the moment what we are focused on is to win together with the squad we chose at the start of the season," he said.



"We are on a train which wants to go to the terminal station - and that means nobody moves out when the train is moving."



Wenger believes Szczesny, who impressed in the 4-0 Carling Cup win at Newcastle, has all the ability to one day take over as Arsenal's first choice keeper - but again challenged the young Pole to continue to produce consistent performances.



"I don't give assurance to anybody for game time," the Gunners boss insisted.



"I just told Wojciech he has the quality to be an Arsenal goalkeeper, and that is down to him to show that.



"We cannot say on one side that we are in top-level competition and also give the players guarantees. The only guarantees are their performances."



Arsenal head to Everton with confidence renewed following their battling win at Molineux.



However, while the Gunners remain five points off leaders Chelsea, Sunday's opponents Everton are currently 12th, but only two points from fifth-placed Newcastle.



"This season is by far the most open I have experienced," Wenger observed.



"If you look at some teams who are in the middle of the table, the quality of the teams they have, it is quite frightening.



"It will be very interesting until the end and as I said many times the team who can get together all the difference ingredients needed in every single game for the longest will win it.



"At the moment, Chelsea has a good advantage but apart from Chelsea everybody looks to have a chance, but also looks certain not to be in the top four."



Wenger continued: "I am convinced we have the potential and have the right spirit, we have shown that again against Wolves on Wednesday night.



"We go to Everton where we will want to show a similar commitment that we have at Wolves."



Arsenal have England left-back Kieran Gibbs available again following a knee injury, while Wenger also reported signs for midfielder Abou Diaby were "quite encouraging".



However, centre-half Thomas Vermaelen is still struggling with an Achilles problem and Laurent Koscielny serves the second of his two-game ban for a red card against Newcastle.



Wenger admitted Vermaelen's injury, picked up during the September international break, was puzzling.



"We know a lot medically nowadays, but there are some mysteries that we do not know about," he said.



"At the moment we have no rational explanation for his pain.



"There is no reason to have surgery and there is no logical explanation for his pain.



"We have to be patient and just hope it will go. That means rest at the moment."



Arsenal will have a large number of players involved in next week's friendly between England and France at Wembley.



Teenage midfielder Jack Wilshere look set for another senior call-up by Fabio Capello and could be handed a first start.



"Of course it is good for Jack to feel he is part of the national team, and he has a chance because in friendlies you can look at players," Wenger said.



"Jack is a player who had an exceptional start to the season, has given a lot and has full commitment, a good combination of talent, intelligence and is still very young."

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