Monday 17 December 2018

Gunners hope Cup 'keeper Ospina can provide sting in tale

Arsenal goalkeeper David Ospina. Photo: John Walton/PA
Arsenal goalkeeper David Ospina. Photo: John Walton/PA

A,y Lawrence

It is fair to say that Colombian goalkeepers have form when it comes to making an impression at Wembley Stadium. None, naturally, could be any larger than life than René Higuita, the extrovert formerly known as El Loco - the Madman - whose extravagant flourish during a friendly game against England in 1995 became the stuff of legend.

When Jamie Redknapp scooped a relatively tame ball towards goal, Higuita flipped acrobatically, flinging his legs behind him to clear with a mid-air scorpion flick. Just for the kick of the trick.

Back home in Medellín, a seven-year-old David Ospina watched the broadcast and felt a surge of pride that his compatriot, a local hero of goalkeeping, pulled off something so audacious. Of course, he was inspired by what he observed on the television. "We were delighted," he recalls. "We talked about it a lot. It was great he did it at Wembley, too. For us Colombians, Higuita is a really important figure. He did so much for the national team and the country. I have always had great respect for him, and it's nice that he is remembered here for something special."

Summoning the spirit of Higuita might not be Arsène Wenger's dream scenario for his chosen goalkeeper during Arsenal's Carabao Cup final rendezvous with Manchester City today in that he wants his man to have the quietest, calmest day possible. "The crazy 'keeper," Wenger smiles at the scorpion memory. "But I wouldn't really be happy [to see Ospina try it]. It shows that football has changed. These kind of characters have disappeared from the game. With the importance of every single result, there is less room for this kind of improvisation and more individual responsibility on the players.

"Some people have given their name to some technical movements that you would not dare to think about the possibility today. Like a Panenka in a European Championship final. These kind of things, you don't see them any more because of the risk. The balance between creativity and risk has become in favour of 'let's be cool'."

Selecting Ospina over Petr Cech, Arsenal's first-choice 'keeper, has not come with the controversy that used to be routine when a manager favoured what has now become known as the cup 'keeper for a showpiece match. "What is happening is that in big clubs now you cannot have only one top goalkeeper. You need two," Wenger explains. "You cannot rest 'keepers any more in training, they have to work so hard. If you have no good second goalkeeper you cannot win any trophy. If you want two top-class goalkeepers, you have to give them games or they don't stay. So that's why I think it is important.

"In my head Ospina is not definitely a number two because he is in a fight with Cech. For me, he is a world-class goalkeeper who is unfortunately at the moment my number two." Ospina considers this his lot. The final against City will be his 12th start of the season, all in cup matches (he missed another three potential outings through injury). "You always want to be the number one," Ospina stresses, "but you have to respect what the situation is at the club and I have huge respect for Petr."

Last season Cech looked on as Ospina relished the experience of winning the FA Cup final against Chelsea, so being the cup 'keeper does have its rewards. "Of course, everybody wants to play as regularly as they can but in my situation it's a question of always being fully prepared and we will be for the final. I always love playing at Wembley. It's the kind of atmosphere you want to experience. City are excellent, no doubt. They have an outstanding group of players who have done things very well through the season. But our focus will be on what we do well and how we can achieve what we want to."

It is a bizarre quirk of this cup run that Arsenal will have played against former or current Manchester City reserve 'keepers in every round of the competition: Doncaster's Ian Lawlor, Norwich's Angus Gunn, West Ham's Joe Hart, Chelsea's Willy Caballero and - finally in City colours - Ederson's back-up man, Claudio Bravo.

Ospina has played against Bravo several times. "We faced each other in a semi-final at the Copa América, and that time Chile came out on top. I hope this match will go my way, but otherwise I will always wish him the best," he says.

Not being the tallest goalkeeper, Ospina trusts in his shot-stopping and understands why some improvisation comes with the territory. "It is hard to generalise but some of us are aware that sometimes goalkeepers are judged on their stature, how tall they are, and if you are closer to an average height, you learn how to compensate with other strengths and make the most of those."

Like good footwork? "It's something you work at, and look at how you can make it work for the way the team plays."

This is a notable game in Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang's strange, embryonic Arsenal career, in which he has not found it too easy to gel with his new team recently as they played in the Europa League while he is ineligible. "It's not ideal," says Wenger. "We took advantage of the last two weeks to build him up physically. Our target on Sunday will be to find him two or three times each half in dangerous positions because he is sharp now."

Whether leading the line, in goal or anywhere in between, Arsenal will be looking for a cup hero.


  • Arsenal v Manchester City, Sky Sports, 4.30

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