Wenger defends his goalkeepers


SOCCER: Partizan Belgrade v Arsenal:FOR A man so dedicated to cultivating the attacking arts, Arsene Wenger is suddenly being forced to spend a perplexing amount of time on the back foot.

Wenger’s team arrived for tonight’s Champions League game at Partizan Belgrade having lost only once this season – to West Bromwich Albion on Saturday - but with concern mounting about the calibre of their goalkeepers.

Reiterating his principles with characteristic defiance, Wenger once again defended Manuel Almunia and Lukasz Fabianski while also shrugging off suggestions he erred in not signing Mark Schwarzer or Shay Given during the summer.

Instead the Frenchman continues to rely on Almunia and his understudy, Fabianski, who will be Arsenal’s last line of defence this evening as the former is out with an elbow injury.

Injuries are rarely welcome in football but Wenger probably has reason to be relieved about this particular malady. Not for the first time, Almunia was heavily criticised for his part in the 3-2 West Bromwich defeat, being blamed for Albion’s second goal. His manager looked suitably relieved to be able to pull him out of the firing line and offer a plausible excuse.

“Almunia is injured, he did his right elbow in making [conceding] the penalty [which the Spaniard saved],” he said. “We checked him at half-time, he had some pain but said he could go on.”

In the second half Arsenal’s goalkeeper allowed a shot from Gonzalo Jara to squirm past him.

There will inevitably be suspicions of a “diplomatic” injury designed to protect a shell-shocked player but Wenger cleverly gave Almunia’s critics reason to doubt their damning analysis before claiming he would have started here if fit.

“No, I wouldn’t have dropped him. The keeper is always the easy target, the easy scapegoat. But we win and lose together, even if people think he made a mistake on the second goal. Manuel is very low. He’s disappointed. But the whole squad’s very low.”

If Wenger harbours regrets about not signing Schwarzer or Given during the transfer window he was keeping them to himself. Similar discretion was applied to any potential recruitment of a new net minder in January.

“I don’t think that’s the right debate now,” he said. “We have the squad we have. Players who did not come in are not the problem.”

Fabianski is possibly even more error-prone than Almunia but his manager remains unworried. “I have no concerns,” said Wenger who will put Wojciech Szczesny on the bench.

“Only the media do. Fabianski’s made mistakes in the past but has shown he can learn from them.”

Having exhausted goalkeeping, the conversation turned to the vacuum left by Fabregas’s absence.

“It’s always tempting when you lose to say there’s no leader but I believe you share leadership and we have plenty of players of character,” said Wenger, who declined to name his captain for tonight but readily reasserted core principles.

“I’ll tell my players to continue to play the way we want to play and to believe in themselves.”

Partizan’s class of 2010 may be a shadow of their 1966 European Cup finalist forbears but the Serbian champions cannot be underestimated.

“They’re technically very good and well organised,” acknowledged Wenger who, taking Serbian police advice, has requested enhanced security for his squad.

“They’ll use every possible break to hit us on the counter-attack. We’ll have a lot of the ball but it’ll be frenetic.”

Coached by Aleksandar Stanojevic, the unbeaten Serbian league leaders – who have appealed for their sometimes violent fans to “behave” tonight – boast a former Wigan reserve goalkeeper in Vladimir Stojkovic, along with a potent Brazil-born forward named Cleo.