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Wenger hails Almunia as Gunners saviour

Arsene Wenger hailed Manuel Almunia for keeping Arsenal’s English Premier League title challenge on track after a fortunate 2-1 victory over Tottenham Hotspur on Saturday.

The Spanish goalkeeper brilliantly saved Robbie Keane’s 71st-minute penalty with the game still delicately poised at 1-1 and Nicklas Bendtner’s thunderous header — his first touch after coming on as a substitute — ensured the Gunners stayed four points clear at the top of the table.

Almunia has proved one of Arsenal’s more unlikely heroes this season. He began the campaign as understudy to Jens Lehmann, but the German’s error-prone performances saw him promoted and he has not disappointed.

He is now firmly established as the club’s number one, and while that has left Lehmann disillusioned, Wenger could not be happier.

”Manuel is a player who had no CV when he came here but he is creating one now,” he said. ”When you do that in a big club, that is difficult, but he has worked hard and he is making his name now through his performances.

”I am not in the situation where I have any bad feelings towards Jens Lehmann. He is 200% professional but we have three goalkeepers of top class and the two who do not play can feel that my decisions are not justified.”

Wenger has every right to feel satisfied as he contemplates his lead at the league summit, but beneath his apparently serene demeanour, there must be a few flickers of anxiety.

Arsenal were forced to rely on a large dollop of good luck to eke out victory here and, in truth, they have been well short of their fluent best for most of the last two months.

Their supporters will argue that points, not plaudits, are the ultimate marker of a side’s progress but it is equally valid to claim that Wenger’s young team seem to be labouring under the burden of leading from the front.

They created precious few chances against a dogged Spurs, although their first move of genuine quality did at least yield the lead in the 47th minute. Cesc Fabregas, despite enduring one of his rare off-days, showed superb awareness to roll a back-heel into the path of Emmanuel Adebayor, who slotted beneath Paul Robinson.

From there, Arsenal should have squeezed Spurs out of the game, but instead it was the visitors who grew in stature. Keane slammed against the crossbar from close range but then set up Dimitar Berbatov with an excellent reverse pass, and the Bulgarian duly crunched high past Manuel Almunia.

Then came the five-minute spell which decided the contest. In the 71st-minute, Berbatov was sent crashing by Kolo Toure’s clumsy tackle but Keane’s penalty was well saved by the sprawling Almunia. Within moments, Bendtner was leaping high above a static Tottenham defence to bury a header past Paul Robinson and the points were Arsenal’s.

”The good sign is that we knew we could win without being at our best,” Wenger added.

”That is something which tells you a lot about the maturity of the team and their mental strength. We have 43 points with 20 games to go so we are in a very strong position.”

For Juande Ramos, the Tottenham manager, this provided an early taste of the heartache which habitually strikes Spurs in north London derbies. It is now 20 games since they beat Arsenal and 14 years since they departed the home of the old enemy with local bragging rights.

Defeat also applied the hand-brake to the revival engineered by the Spaniard since his arrival at White Hart Lane, although his team’s perky performance — despite being stripped of six regulars through injury and suspension — provided some cold comfort.

”It was a game we could have won,” he said. ”It was evenly balanced and we had a great chance with the penalty but we didn’t take it. That’s why Arsenal won.

”Robbie is upset about it because it was a great opportunity in a derby where there is great rivalry. He is usually very certain with his penalties but he made a mistake when we needed a goal and that is why he is so disappointed.” – AFP

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