With the acquisition of a new goalkeeper looking very unlikely, Arsenal are going to have to go the tried and tested route in between the sticks on Sunday. Nobody seems too sure who Arsenal`s current first choice goalkeeper is at the moment, indeed, we could see any one of our four first team goalies manning the posts at Anfield. I`m sure the manager is trying to promote competition by keeping his cards close to his chest; but I am not entirely sure that that is such a healthy situation for the fragile confidence of some of our custodians nor for the defence selected to play in front of them. The mystery box goalie didn`t work out too well for Capello and Rob Green this summer as I recall. Either that or the manager genuinely expected to have bought someone in by now to be bona fide first choice. Anyway, that certainly won`t happen in time for Sunday, so who should play?
The case for: Sufficiently dry behind the ears, at 33 Almunia is our most experienced option, he has played and played well at Anfield before and he is the most familiar option with the defence. Almunia doesn`t make as many catastrophic errors as people make out; he`s had three seasons as our number 1 and has heard every criticism going. They say good judgement comes from experience, experience comes from bad judgement and Almunia has a plentiful enough history of both by now. Arsenal fans explicitly refuse to point out his good points as a keeper, but he does have them. He almost never fumbles crosses (though his propensity to punch unnecessarily is annoying) and his record with penalties is better than David Seaman`s. Our other three options are youthful wild cards; all three are probably just as likely to lose us the game as win it. We know what we`re getting with Almunia and he is the safest option we have.
The case against: The dislike of Almunia; from supporters and the media, has reached hysterical proportions and his reputation is unlikely to ever be viewed positively in North London again. The pressure on him will be intense, the concession of any sort of goal will be forensically analysed and construed as his fault, whether that be the case or not. Almunia`s confidence is unlikely to be high, he has been only a sporadic presence in pre season and the manager has hardly been at hand with ringing endorsement. His assertion in May that "I never said Almunia was my long term number 1" combined with yet another "illness" enforced absence for the remaining league fixtures of last year point to the fact that Almunia does not have a future at the club. The persistent chase for the distinctly average Schwarzer won`t have bridged any rifts in that regard.
The case for: There is an outstanding goalkeeper in there somewhere, elastic limbed and agile; he is still capable of pulling off the sort of saves I don`t think other Arsenal keepers are. Arsenal are away from home to a rival and will inevitably spend time on the back foot, Fabianski is a positive goalkeeper who sweeps up well around his area. The manager clearly still has faith in him despite his mistakes last season. Most of those errors came in inconsequential games and the experience should stand him in good stead. Having appeared in most of our pre season games, he should be more finely tuned than our other choices. The game is also away from home, away from the jeering stupidity of the people who are supposed to support the club. On the Members Day there was an audible ironic jeer when Bob Wilson announced an on pitch competition where supporters were invited to compare their reflexes with Fabianski. A solid performance at Anfield could restore is reputation and unleash the talented goalkeeper lying somewhere amidst the wreckage of last spring.
The case against: His confidence appears to be absolutely shot to bits, in his last five or sic games he has made at least one glaring error. The rigours of a pre season friendly in his native Warsaw seemed too much for his fragile nerves and it`s a massive risk to have such an accident prone goalkeeper for our opening game. Whereas a good performance could help partially restore his reputation, another mistake will surely finish him off on these shores. Liverpool v Arsenal is a huge game in the fixture calendar which attracts a global audience; eyes will be boring into the back of his skull, willing him to commit another error straight from the comedy reel. He could recover from his errors in the manner that Huerelho Gomes did, but I think it more likely he will go the way of Alex Manninger as a talent buried under the glare of a suspicious public. Fabianski cannot have the confidence of his defence; he certainly does not have the confidence of the supporters. There is a fine line between a manager showing faith and a manager showing blind faith.
The case for: Having been out of the team for the last ten months, everyone has pretty much forgotten how many errors he made when he was first in the team! The spell in between sticks last season will have been a valuable learning curve for him and the performance at Craven Cottage seems to have glossed over the general anxiety he showed for every other game for which he was in goal. The credit he has locked in the bank would mean he would probably be the least harshly scrutinised of the four possible choices and therefore most likely the most relaxed. He has had a good number of minutes in pre season, saving a penalty and generally doing all that has been asked of him. The performance at Fulham last year suggests he has it in him to be a match winner.
The case against: He hardly convinced in his spell in the first team last season; his judgement is still rather erratic and the defence didn`t display a lot of confidence in him. He was quietly dropped again after a poor performance at Upton Park. Saving penalties against Austrian part timers in pre season is one thing, but Anfield roaring on a new manager with Gerrard and Torres firing bullets at you is another kettle of fish altogether. The last ditch saves at Craven Cottage masked some positional mistakes one would come to expect from a keeper with less than 20 professional appearances behind him. As well as being incredibly inexperienced, I`m not even sure I see a great deal of potential in him.
The case for: A supremely confident young man with a point to prove. Confidence is an alien trait to Arsenal keepers just now. Szczesny still has praise ringing in his ears from a prosperous loan spell at Brentford and has earned the peculiar distinction of a big reputation amongst supporters having only played for the first team once. Szczesny is whispered to be the great white hope of Arsenal`s goalkeeping future and the reason the manager is only looking for a stop gap in the shape of Schwarzer. The manager has never been afraid to throw in young players with the requisite quality in the past, so it stands to reason he wouldn`t hesitate to hurl a talented 20 year old keeper into the deep end. Szczesny also shows signs of being a commanding, dominant presence unperturbed by making use of his larynx. He is the only option that has a genuinely clean slate in terms of form and confidence of supporters. There may be an element of mistrust between the defence and Mannone; Fabianski and Almunia, but Wojciech is an unknown enough quantity to build trust with the back four without any previous looming overhead.
The case against: His reputation as our goalkeeping saviour mystifies me; he has played one game for us at home to a Championship side. He may have impressed at Brentford, but if I told you we`d just signed MK Dons first choice goalie and that we were going to start with him on Sunday, what would your reaction be? Even if the keeper in question was only 20. Szczesny benefits from the fact that he is simply a.nother other than Almunia or Fabianski. In the few times I have seen him he has shown undeniable quality, but those include a reserve game and Brentford playing at Millwall. Does he yet have the authority to command a defence that has designs on winning the title? In reality, Szczesny probably needs another loan spell, possibly at a Championship/ lower reaches of the Premiership level before he can have designs on the coveted number 1 shirt. Considering his confirmed squad number for the year is again 53, I very much doubt the manager considers him ready yet.
The verdict: Given what we have, I think it`s a no brainer. It has to be Almunia. He may not be the greatest (by no means the worst either) but he`s the best we`ve got. He is well acquainted with occasions such as this and, contrary to popular belief, performs more often than he doesn`t. I`m not going to tell you I think Almunia to be anything other than the fifth or sixth best keeper in the league, but that puts him comfortably above our other options; who are either an accident waiting to happen or too callow. Arsenal seem to like destroying the confidence of young goalkeepers in the last ten years, perhaps we could wait a little while yet before we leave Mannone or Szczesny as gibbering wrecks. Fabianski simply cannot play as it seems at the moment he is making one glaring error in every game; Almunia`s errors are usually a) less glaring and b) more sporadic. In the absence of a new, top class goalie (and Schwarzer would satisfy only one of those qualifiers), I think Almunia has to be the man. What would you do?LD.