Reputations can take a moment to make but last a lifetime
If only that were the case for Almunia, but of course it wasn’t. Lehmann was loved, he was trusted, he had a healthy balance in his Arsenal supporters’ bank account. Lehmann had earned respect and admiration, he was a revered crowd hero. Incredibly, given Lehmann’s crazy aberration that saw us play little short of 90 minutes against Barcelona with only ten men in a Champions League Final, he was barely criticised. No, it was Almunia who was held to account. He was already dubious in most people’s eyes and now it was universally confirmed and agreed: Almunia was garbage. Almunia was blamed for the defeat. He was castigated for failing to keep out Belletti’s shot. He should have dealt better with a near-post effort and stood firm to block the ball away, not offer shabby feeble legs to an angled drive and let the ball ricochet off them into the roof of the net.
If this was a film, the Almunia character would have been sold at this point. But no, this being Arsenal, Almunia has gone on to make over 170 bloody appearances for the club. When Lehmann later began to make serial errors and get narked by rough treatment during corners, it became clear that he needed to be replaced. Which top-class keeper was signed to replace him? Nobody. Almunia got the nod and has spent subsequent seasons making Arsenal fans cringe with his ineptitude and costly mistakes. But Manuel Almunia had already made his most costly error, he had already flunked his most important exam. He failed to stop Barcelona beating Arsenal in that 2006 Champions League Final. Almunia has never recovered from this moment. Arsenal fans have never recovered from this moment. Frankly, Arsenal Football Club has never recovered from this moment. We have won nothing since.
Almunia, the keeper who went on to display little goalkeeping merit, the keeper who Arsenal don’t want to play anymore but who no other club wants to buy, is now wincing his way through a humiliating loan spell at West Ham. But what if Almunia had experienced a sliding door moment in Paris? What if he had been the hero? And had won Arsenal the Champions League? In that different dimension, the officials thankfully realised that Eto’o was offside for the equaliser and ruled it out. Barca’s spirit dropped. They managed one last big push to level the match but substitute keeper Manuel Almunia, who had expected to spend the match on the bench, pulled off his now legendary save, sensing a sudden burst to the near post by the Barca right-back and blocking the dastardly effort with just his legs. Barca were broken by the save and, against all the odds, Arsenal held on to achieve the ultimate glory of winning the Champions League.
Almunia would have become an instant legend. He may still have gone on to make loads of mistakes and still cost us matches, but he would have bathed in the glow of bringing the European Cup to Arsenal. His later mistakes wouldn’t have felt so bad and infamous balls-ups against the likes of Manchester United and WBA may have been seen in a more comical, semiendearing light. He would have had a world of credit in his Arsenal supporters’ bank account. He’d have been a lifelong legendary Arsenal hero millionaire. In fact, the chances are that Almunia’s confidence would have soared from Paris and he may have become a perfectly acceptable keeper, not making his notable howlers at all. That night in Paris could have made him. Instead, sadly, it broke him. And, in some ways, it broke Arsenal too. The team disbanded, we began a shift in playing style, from pacey counter-attacking football to incessant passing and dribbling. We have yet to rediscover a successful brand of football.
Another Arsenal skeleton who suffered at the hands of Manchester United was Igors Stepanovs. Anyone who went to the recent 8-2 defeat at Old Trafford will know how bad that felt in person, but at least many of us expected to get whacked that day. But in February 2001 Arsenal were United’s most genuine title contenders. Stepanovs had not wowed the masses since joining us from Skonto Riga in the summer of 2000 and the jury was out on whether or not he had poise and calm assurance, or was an embarrassment of slow lumbering guesswork. On that shocking February day, Arsenal were nailed 6-1. The jury reached an immediate and unanimous decision on Stepanovs: guilty. No appeal. Fairly or unfairly, the nature of the drubbing meant confirmation of all the concerns over Stepanovs. He never recovered from that day.
22 onlinegooner.com Arsenal did recover in this instance, going on to win the Double the following season, but Stepanovs was not a major part of it. But what if the sliding doors of fate had gone in Stepanovs’ favour? In an alternative dimension, he defended heroically after Thierry Henry’s equaliser and went down in Gooner folklore for his late headed winner. Arsenal went on to nick the title from United and Stepanovs played a significant role in the following season’s Double. He soon moved on but is remembered fondly as a bit of a cult hero, especially for that great day at Old Trafford. But no, his door did not slide quite like that. It does concern me a little bit that Per Mertesecker looks unerringly similar in build to Stepanovs. I’m hoping that he will not need a sliding door.
Mertesecker’s defensive partner, at least in the absence of Thomas Vermaelen, is Laurent Koscielny and the jury is still largely out on him. Little was expected of a signing who arrived last summer with little credible top-level experience. Given that he had to play more than expected, I think Koscielny has done rather well and is a reasonable performer. However to many others he is not up to standard. What kills his reputation for now? Last season’s Carling Cup Final, where he and Wojciech Szczesny horrifically screwed up and gave Obafemi Martins the easiest goal he will ever blow in, to win the cup for Birmingham City. What a sliding door moment he had. If Koscielny had sensed a problem due to Szczesny’s confusing presence and booted the ball clear for a throw-in, the danger may have looked scary but it would have passed. Arsenal would probably have won the cup in injury-time and Koscielny would have been an Arsenal hero, part of our Wembley folklore. For now, the jury deliberates its verdict.
Reputations can take a moment to make but last a lifetime. Emmanuel Eboue looked a quality right-back in the run-up to that Paris final in 2006, but his dive that led to Campbell’s goal led to a spate of diving, messing about, stupid gurning and ultimately booing, which as a potent combination led to him leaving Arsenal for Galatasaray this summer. What a waste of a promising talent. In a different dimension, Eboue could have knocked that rubbish on the head and become a gladiator of a player. As I mentioned earlier, Arsenal haven’t really recovered from that Champions League Final. What a five years we may have had instead, if the door had truly slid the other way that fateful night.
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