A Tribute to Manuel Rivero Almunia: Loyalty Against All Odds
After spending eight seasons on a nomadic spree with six different Spanish sides, Manuel Almunia joined Arsenal for £2.6m in 2004. In his early years at Arsenal, he played the role of second fiddle to Mad Jens Lehmann. He was termed as Arsenal’s “cup” keeper because he got his chances in the Carling and FA Cups.
His only major piece of silverware with the club is currently the last piece of silverware Arsenal has won, the 2005 FA Cup.
His breakthrough season was undoubtedly the 2007/08 campaign were he notched up 38 appearances in all competitions and that was the last campaign Arsenal were serious contenders for Premier League honors.
Arsenal’s Champions League adventure was halted in the hand of a familiar foes, Liverpool. The game will be fondly remembered for Theo Walcott’s 80-yard dash but Kolo Toure’s stupidity late on cost a penalty that was slammed home by Steven Gerrard. Ryan Babel added insult to injury to put the game beyond doubt.
Arsenal was also humiliated in the FA Cup after being on the end of a 4-0 thrashing by Manchester United. Arsene Wenger had set his sights on a crunch encounter with the defending Champions League holders, AC Milan, so he tweaked his squad a bit handing starts to the likes of Justin Hoyte et al.
The way Arsenal surrendered its winning position in the league that season was shameful. At February, Arsene Wenger’s team was five points ahead of Manchester United and eight points clear off Chelsea.
The team capitulated from within with those quick-fire draws against Birmingham, Aston Villa, Middlesbrough and Wigan coupled with the losses to Manchester United and Chelsea saw the Gunners finish the campaign in third place.
Almunia did really well in that campaign.
Maybe it was the blonde hair.
Mad Jens Lehmann waved his goodbyes and returned to the Bundesliga leaving the Number One spot available for the taking. Knowing fully that his place wasn’t threatened by the then-error prone Lukasz Fabianski, complacency started creeping in to Almunia’s game.
However, he was a vital part of the Arsenal side that had an impregnable home record in the Champions League in the 2008/09 season. Arsenal were paired in a group containing FC Porto, Fenerbahce and Dynamo Kiev. The home ties were 4-0, 0-0 and 1-0 respectively.
Arsenal beat Roma 1-0 at the Emirates and won on penalties in the second leg. Arsenal then drew away in the quarterfinal against Villarreal before thumping them 3-0 at home.
While Mad Jens Lehmann set the pace with a clean sheet record that stood at 10 games, Almunia on the other hand had five consecutive clean sheets at the Emirates before that horrible semifinal clash against Manchester United.
Like Thomas Vermaelen’s infamous slip in the San Siro that allowed Robinho to pull the trigger, Kieran Gibbs slipped at the vital moment to allow Park Ji-Sung put the visitors ahead. Cristiano Ronaldo’s 35-yard free kick still haunts me in my dreams and I was very glad to see the back of him when he secured that big money move to Real Madrid.
I actually hosted a party when Ronaldo was sold to Madrid. Like Thierry Henry before him, CR7 was a tormentor in chief to Arsenal and the rest of the Premier League teams. I was also ecstatic when a Wayne Rooney exit seemed on the cards but the sly fox used his exit claims to get a very fat salary.
The 2009/10 season was an on and off season for Almunia. He was blameless in the Champions League exit in the hands of Barcelona. Lionel Messi was on fire that day and I still have fond memories of his one-two with Mikael Silvestre.
His deputy Fabianski was between the sticks when Arsenal was knocked out of the Carling Cup against Manchester City. Stoke City also drive the nails in the club’s FA Cup coffin.
Arsenal had only the Premier League to fight for and Almunia and Fabianski played their part in yet another trophy-less campaign. The way Tottenham’s Danny Rose’s shot passed through Almunia’s hands was questionable and Fabianski’s inability to deal with a routine corner cost his team the game against Wigan.
That summer, the frustrations of the fans was well known to Arsene Wenger so he made it clear that he needed a new custodian between the sticks for the forthcoming season.
The media Vultures played their part in linking us to keepers from all over the Milky Way. This even caused the official Arsenal site to create a new column called “Transfer Leaked”.
Goalies like Hugo Lloris and Gianluigi Buffon were out of our reach so Wenger set his sights on the only Aussie that has been keeping since the pre-historic era Sir Mark Schwarzer. At 38, he was probably needed for a season or two so Wenger took a stand with his £2m bids. Fulham rejected both offers so we had to stick with what we had.
Almunia was heavily criticized for the cheap goal he conceded against David N’ Gog in the curtain raiser at Anfield. A routine clean sheet against Blackpool followed. He was also relatively untroubled against Champions League newbies Braga. He then put up a brilliant performance away to Blackburn.
When West Brom visited the Emirates last season, everyone expected a routine win. Almunia got injured when he clashed with Odemwingie but he took the wrong decision to stay on the pitch instead of relinquishing his place to Fabianski at half time.
His second half performance cost him his place in the team.
The defense was in shambles when Peter Odemwingie scored West Brom and he was expected to do better from a Gonzalo Jara shot that skipped past him. He was also in No Man’s Land in the buildup to Jerome Thomas’ third goal. Samir Nasri put up a late rally but it wasn’t to be.
Arsenal had dropped more points thanks to more suspect goalkeeping and that was the last straw for Arsene Wenger.
While Fabianski staked his claim as Arsenal’s Number One, Almunia spent a considerable time out injured. Out of the blue, Wojciech Szczesny emerged and his performances earned him a new contract which also indicated that Almunia had dropped two places down the pecking order.
With the January transfer window around the corner, Wenger told all interested parties that Almunia was available for a knockdown price of £1.5m. To be frank at that point, I wanted Almunia to take the offer from Malaga or Galatasaray because he’s approaching the twilight years of his career.
Instead of crying to the media Vultures about how is place had been lost, Almunia spent his time in the physio room regaining his fitness.
Fabianski’s shoulder injury meant that he had climbed one place to number two but when Szczesny got injured against Barcelona, Arsenal referred back to the old hag that was clearly out of shape and favor. The same man that was regarded as an outcast, Manuel Rivero Almunia.
When Dani Alves dislocated Szczesny’s finger with that free kick. I saw a goalie with unshaved beards running into the pitch and wearing his gloves like an upcoming youngster kid that has been dying for his chance.
The first goal was conceded to a player that has his own footballing planet. The second conceded was to a midfield demigod. The third conceded was to that wizard.
He still made a considerable amount of saves and put his body on the line like his life depended on it. Szcsesny was diagnosed to spend 6 weeks out but Almunia’s performances became shaky and confidence bereft till this happened…
He had caused more damage to himself than his team causing Wenger to bring Lehmann out from retirement to stay between the sticks. Szczesny recovered earlier than expected and the game against West Brom turned out to Manuel Almunia’s last for the club.
In eight seasons at Arsenal, Almunia had notched up 175 games for the Gunners, keeping 53 clean sheets in the process.
Manuel Almunia has revealed that he is ready to leave Arsenal at the end of the season, but insists he wants to remain in England:
“I’m looking for a nice move next season, I want to start a new episode of my life. It’s a very respectful relationship and now I’m free, I can do what I like and he’s happy with my work at Arsenal for ideas.”
“I have got lazy to move too far, because life here in London is fantastic and I hope I can have a club to go to next season so I can stay.”
I wish Manuel Almunia all the best and I’ll certainly miss him because he offered Arsenal the good, the bad and most certainly, the ugly.
Here’s to Manuel Rivero Almunia.
The soft spoken and mature man who remained loyal to Arsenal FC.
Against all odds.
You can follow Gooner Daily on Twitter @goonerdaily. I’ll follow back
Feel free to visit Gooner Daily’s Facebook page and click on the like button.
You can also join Gooner Daily’s Mailing List to get notifications of new posts by email by clicking on the Follow button