Wednesday 24 January 2018

Stand-in Fabianski can prove his worth in Belgrade cauldron, insists Wenger

Arsene Wenger during a training session yesterday. Photo: Getty Images
Arsene Wenger during a training session yesterday. Photo: Getty Images

Jeremy Wilson

For Arsenal fans, the good and bad news seemed to arrive in equal measure yesterday.

Ostensibly, the absence of goalkeeper Manuel Almunia for tonight's Champions League match against Partizan Belgrade may have come as a considerable relief following the mistake on Saturday that so contributed to West Bromwich Albion's shock 3-2 win.

The problem, however, is that it means Lukasz Fabianski -- who commands even less confidence -- will be promoted into the first team for a match guaranteed to be played in an intensely hostile atmosphere.

For all Arsene Wenger's skill at developing brilliant young attacking talent, it is a situation that again underlines the central weakness in the construction of his squad.

This has been further magnified in the light of the annual financial results, which showed that the club are some £56m in profit.

Most of that money is available to Wenger and he is likely to make a renewed bid for Fulham's Mark Schwarzer in January.

Almunia was clearly at fault for West Brom's second goal on Saturday -- and arguably also their third -- although Wenger's admission yesterday that the Spaniard had damaged an elbow when conceding a first-half penalty did at least offer some explanation.

"We checked him at half-time -- he had some pain but said he could go on, so I decided to play him on," said Wenger.

"I would have taken him out if he said, 'I feel it'."

Wenger confirmed that Fabianski would start tonight, despite a nightmare individual display in his most recent Champions League appearance, against Porto last season.

Fabianski has also made notable mistakes in matches against Chelsea, Wigan and Tottenham, but still retains the faith of Wenger ahead of Wojciech Szczesny and Vito Mannone.

"Fabianski made the mistakes but he can show he has learned from that," said Wenger. "The only way to show you have confidence in a player is to put him on the pitch. I have no concerns, only you (the media) do."

That is not strictly true. In some of his most recent matches, Fabianski has endured sarcastic cheers from his own fans when he has caught even the most routine of crosses. Even so, given the nature of Saturday's defeat, it might prove good timing for Almunia to be taking a break from first-team football.

"The 'keeper is always the easy scapegoat but we win together and lose together," said Wenger. "He is very low. He is disappointed but the whole squad is very low."

Away from the goalkeeper debate, other issues have arisen for Wenger in the aftermath of Saturday's defeat. The injuries to Cesc Fabregas, Robin van Persie and now Almunia have deprived Arsenal of their most obvious captains, with Alex Song, Tomas Rosicky, Gael Clichy and Andrey Arshavin among the options this evening.

"It is always tempting when you lose a game to say there is no leader, but I believe you share leadership -- we have plenty of players of character," said Wenger.

Jack Wilshere is among those expected to return to the starting team tonight.

Fabregas is also back running and hopeful of being involved in some way against Chelsea on Sunday.

One notable absentee in Belgrade, however, is Abou Diaby, who picked up a recurrence of an ankle injury against West Brom.

Wenger's own mentality has also come under scrutiny following Tottenham manager Harry Redknapp's observation that he had gone from being like a professor to joining the managerial "nutters" on the touchline.

"When I have something to say, I say it in an honest way," said Wenger.

Arsenal, meanwhile, have additional security for their trip to Serbia.

Last season, a Toulouse supporter was killed following an attack in a Belgrade bar before the match, and Partizan were banned from European competition for a year after their fans clashed with those of Bosnian rivals Zrinjski Mostar in 2007.

Partizan were even moved yesterday to publish an appeal on their own website urging supporters to "wipe out ugly traces" of their recent past.

"Full security and friendliness towards all Arsenal fans must be our priority," it said. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

Partizan Belgrade v Arsenal

Live, Sky Sports 4, Setanta Irl, 7.45

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