ARSENE WENGER’S satisfaction was understandable.
A match-winning display of great promise from goalkeeper Vito Mannone, backed up by an uncharacteristically gritty team performance, prompted the Arsenal manager to describe this win as a potential turning point for his side.
Coming into the match, question marks had been placed against both the keeper’s position and Arsenal’s ability to add title-challenging steel to their enthralling attacking play. While those question marks have certainly not been totally erased, Wenger’s claims about the significance of this game were not without foundation.
The number one spot has already caused concern this season with Manuel Almunia looking shaky – the calls for the Spaniard to be called up by England have become distinctly more muted – before being laid low with a chest virus while regular deputy Lukasz Fabianski is sidelined following knee surgery.
Mannone had been installed as back-up before the start of the season but his recent performances against Standard Liege and Wigan hardly inspired confidence, and his place against Fulham had been subject to debate.
It is to the 21-year-old’s enormous credit, then, that he turned in the kind of performance he presumably dreamt of as a youngster growing up in Italy before he was spotted by an Arsenal scout and persuaded to move to England in 2005.
A succession of impressive saves denied Fulham the opening goal their first-half pressure deserved and after Robin Van Persie had unexpectedly given the visitors the lead in the 52nd minute, Mannone continued his good work, notably when his sharp reflexes kept out Bobby Zamora’s close range header.
Wenger admitted the player’s experience in England has not always been a happy one, particularly when he was loaned out, swapping the cosseted life of a young player at one of the Premier League’s top clubs for the altogether more grittier surroundings of Barnsley.
The manager admits the switch to Oakwell was tough for Mannone, and convinced Wenger to rethink his policy of loaning youngsters out.
“I think he was a bit too young, that’s why I’m a bit more cautious now about sending foreign players out on loan when they are young,” the manager admitted.
“In England in the Championship, they’re under pressure and when suddenly you get out of Arsenal it isn’t easy. He didn’t speak perfect English but I believe it was too early.”
Wenger had little doubt Mannone could cope given the commitment the player had already shown in his career.
“It’s not easy, but when a player goes abroad and resists at such a young age and works hard without playing, there is no better education for his mental strength,” the manager added. “He went from that experience and kept working. There is a belief in him as well.
“We saw in him some qualities and he showed those qualities today. But the problem for a goalkeeper is you can only play him as a goalkeeper.
“If he is a midfielder, you can play him wide left or in the middle. But if you are a goalkeeper you have to sit there if you are not in the field and wait until someone gets injured.”
That is exactly what has happened, and Mannone will get the opportunity to demonstrate this display was no fluke when Arsenal play Olympiakos in the Champions League tomorrow with Wenger seemingly dangling the carrot of more opportunities ahead. “We will assess the situation at the time (when Almunia is fit),” said the Frenchman.
It perhaps should have been more of a concern that his side had to rely on the man of the match efforts of a rookie keeper to hold on against a team that will do well to repeat last season’s seventh placed finish.
After successive away defeats at Manchester United and Manchester City though, Wenger knew it was important his side claimed maximum points and he clearly believes this display demonstrated his side’s hitherto hidden depths.
“We showed great spirit today,” he said. “I’m very optimistic about this team because what I have seen today means there is something in this team that can go from strength to strength.’’
For Fulham, defeat was cruel and their failure to breach the visitors’ defences confirmed a problem that has run through the opening weeks of their campaign. But manager Roy Hodgson remains confident the goals will come and insists he has no regrets over his failure to sign Peter Crouch this summer.
“Goals are a problem,” he said, “but I’m not saying it bothers me in the longer term. It would be very unfair of me to say I regret not signing somebody.”
REFEREE: Martin Atkinson (West Yorkshire) 7: Kept a low profile and allowed the game to maintain its flow even when the challenges became more desperate during the final stages.
MATCH RATING: **** The Fulham fans won’t have enjoyed it, but Mannone’s display gave the game an added edge and maintained the thrill count despite a lack of goals.
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