England keeper may face Spanish waiter

WEST HAM goalkeeper Robert Green has had to endure huge disappointments to finally secure a regular place in the England squad, but come July it seems likely that he will face fresh competition for his place in the run-up to the World Cup, writes DAVE EVA

WEST HAM goalkeeper Robert Green has had to endure huge disappointments to finally secure a regular place in the England squad, but come July it seems likely that he will face fresh competition for his place in the run-up to the World Cup, writes DAVE EVANS.

The rivalry is unlikely to come from Chris Kirkland, Paul Robinson or even Scott Carson though. No, the new competition as of July 14 will come from Arsenal's Spanish goalkeeper Manuel Almunia.

In July, the uncapped Spaniard, who is 32 later this month, will have been a resident for five years in the UK and therefore qualifies for a British passport. And already there are mutterings that England coach Fabio Capello would consider Almunia if he was available.

This week, Trevor Brooking, the FA's Director of Football Development, remained characteristically on the fence over the issue, stating: "The selection of the England squad is down solely to Fabio Capello."


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But the situation is surely not as simplistic as that.

West Ham boss Gianfranco Zola certainly knows the value of his own goalkeeper, and indeed he was sceptical that his fellow Italian was even considering bringing Almunia into his squad next season.

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"You don't know whether Capello is looking at Almunia, you are just assuming that," Zola told reporters last week, as if perhaps he had some inside information on the issue.

"All I can say is that Robert Green is doing well for me and as far as I can see, and I have looked at the competition, he can be among the best players in the country."

There is no doubt about that. In recent weeks, he has been at the top of his game, and two brave saves at the feet of strikers against Stoke on Saturday kept West Ham on course to an excellent victory.

But how does 29-year-old Green compare to the Arsenal goalkeeper?

Almunia has kept 20 clean sheets in the 43 games he has played this season, letting in 35 goals, while the West Ham man earned his 12th clean sheet of the campaign at the Britannia Stadium, making it 42 goals conceded in 40 appearances.

Almunia certainly has the edge on statistics, but Zola accepts that his goalkeeper did not have the best of starts to the campaign, but is now in superb form.

"He has been one of my key players," said Zola. "He had a few problems at the beginning, but after that he has been different class."

One poor performance against Bolton at Upton Park stands out and indeed Green, who will play his 100th league game for the Hammers against Liverpool on Saturday, didn't manage a clean sheet until mid-November, but since then he has more than made up for it.

"He can be easily the number one and that doesn't come because he is my goalkeeper, because I see he is a very good keeper, he gives you much security, but that is my opinion," added Zola.

The consensus of opinion on Almunia is a doubtful one however, despite the views of Capello and Brooking.

England's cricket team have already gone down this road. Who would say that their squad has not been enriched by the likes of Alan Lamb, Graham Hick and Kevin Pietersen, but they all had English roots, whereas Almunia has not.

Furthermore, there is a verbal agreement between the home nations, that they will only select players who have at least grandparents with roots in the country they are playing for.

Almunia has no such credentials. Indeed, if there were to be a spate of injuries amongst Spain's elite goalkeepers, Almunia would no doubt be considered by them, and that is something he is unlikely to turn down for the prospect of playing for England.

Almunia seems to be something of an opportunist, and the fact that Capello is willing to consider him, take us back to the argument that England should have an English coach, who appreciates the importance of tradition in the national team.

Green has worked hard to force his way into the England squad, and with David James in familiar self-destruct mode again at the weekend, perhaps he will get to the top of Capello's list in the near future.

Having done that, how galling would it be if he was replaced by a Spaniard?

England have plenty of goalkeepers, and it would be a smack in the face for all of them if they were to be replaced by a foreigner.

If that happens it would not be Almunia's fault. It would be the FA's for sitting on their backsides and letting it happen.

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