First home game of the season tonight and it's an interesting match up with Bolton. Everyone is expecting them to struggle, and we've had a very good record against them at home in recent seasons but I have a feeling we'll find the Trotters a difficult hurdle to overcome. The injury, on Sunday, to Antti Niemi means he will almost certainly miss both tonight's game and Middlesbrough on Saturday. There is a fear that Niemi's recent problems with injury are going to be an ongoing issue and raises the question again of whether or not we need to bring in another goalkeeper.
Until Niemi came along we had struggled to find a 'keeper good enough to be first choice, and have spent the last two seasons trying out a succession of possible backups. This season we only have Tony Warner and Ricardo Batista to fall back on, and of those Batista is surely still too young and inexperienced to be risked. Warner was excellent on Sunday and the question is really whether he is up to the job or not. During his first spell, on loan from Cardiff, he did reasonably well and appeared to have a safe pair of hands. He kept a clean sheet against Birmingham on his debut and also put on a good display in our final match at Highbury. In that game he saved a penalty early on (if he'd done that at the Emirates we really would be signing his praise) and although he went on to concede 4, it was the defence that took the bulk of the blame. He continued in goal until the return of Mark Crossley and then had to cope with occasional games here and there, including a second half substitution at the Walham Green Dog Track where I seem to remember him not looking so confident.
Having signed him on full terms in January he made only 5 further league appearances, the last of which saw him concede a total of 12 goals in three matches against Arsenal, Everton and Liverpool. Last season saw him play just one competitive match for Fulham, sandwiched between loan spells at Leeds and Norwich, the very shaky performance at home to Leicester in the Carling Cup. Apart from that one off appearance last season, a bizarre game for all concerned, we've not really seen much of Warner to make a decent assessment. I suspect he may have lost some confidence, having been in and out of the side towards the end of 2005/06 and then booted out to play for struggling Championship teams neither of whom seemed keen to take him on full time. Maybe the Emirates performance is evidence that Warner has recovered his self belief but for now doubts remain over his ability to perform consistently over a full season.
If we do need to sign a new 'keeper then there are a couple of issues we'll have to resolve. The transfer window closes at the end of August so any deal needs to be brokered and completed in fairly quick time. We also need to identify exactly what type of goalie we actually need. Finding a "number 2" 'keeper is not an easy thing to do. Any player capable of performing at the desired level in the Premier League is unlikely to be keen to sign for a club who want him to just sit on the bench. Traditionally this has meant looking for an "experienced" older pro who has maybe fallen down the pecking order at his current club, or plucking some young bright thing from the lower reaches of the leagues. The problem with this approach is that the older pro may be just as injury prone as Niemi, and the young bright thing may not be up to the job. I think our best approach, although initially more expensive, will be to try and sign a new number 1, or at least a 'keeper capable of competing for the number 1 spot.
I like Antti a lot, and believe he is as good a 'keeper as we're likely to see, but his robustness is a definite concern. I think any top class player with belief in his ability would be prepared to fight for his place, so bringing in another quality 'keeper would only be a good thing for the team. If this is the approach the club choose to take I wouldn't be surprised to see no signing made in the current window. Getting the right player is essential and I think Sanchez would rather keep faith with the players he has and then focus on picking up a new 'keeper in January when fresh funds may be available. I think Tony Warner deserves his chance to stake a claim and, with two home games still to come before Niemi returns, hope we are signing his name again on Wednesday and Saturday.
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