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Brilliant Almunia keeps Gunners' hopes alive

MANUEL Almunia stood between Arsenal and a Champions League hammering at Manchester United on Wednesday.

The goalkeeper restricted United to a 1-0 first-leg victory which convinced Gunners manager Arsene Wenger his team can turn around next week.

Not long back from an ankle injury, the Spanish 'keeper was beaten by John O'Shea's 18th minute goal at Old Trafford. But he blocked a close-range header by Cristiano Ronaldo, got up to parry his follow up effort and also raced off his line to save at the feet of Carlos Tevez with the Argentina star racing toward goal.

"Almunia had a big game in a big game," Wenger said. "His saves were excellent, top class in every sense. His reading of the game, his decision-making, quality, sharpness. He was really top class tonight."

United manager Alex Ferguson acknowledged that Almunia had made a series of great stops to prevent his team taking a big lead to Emirates Stadium in next Tuesday's second leg. "We had chances and their goalkeeper made two or three fantastic saves," said Ferguson, who also saw Ronaldo shake the Arsenal crossbar with a 25-meter shot.

The Gunners have only the Champions League to prevent them going four seasons in a row without a title. Their last success was the 2005 FA Cup when they won a penalty shootout against United after being dominated in a 0-0 draw in the final. But Wenger believes that his side can overturn the first-leg lead despite being outplayed for long spells by Ferguson's team.

"If you look at the clear-cut chances they were on top," the Arsenal manager said. "The positive is that we are only 1-0 down that we take home and I am convinced that you will see a different Arsenal team at the Emirates.

"I believe that we have a good chance to reverse the result. The tie is very open. (United) can have regrets because they didn't score a second goal. It's down to us to make sure they regret they didn't score a second goal."

Ferguson however was happy to take a slim lead to Arsenal next week.

"The most pleasing aspect is that before the game we said try and win and not lose a goal and we have done that and the performance level was very good so we have achieved that and I think we have given ourselves a good chance overall," Ferguson said.

"We have players who can score goals and we will be a goal threat at their ground but the tie is not over."

"We always do things the hard way and this is another night when we have got our fans frustrated where we maybe should be into the final but we are not but we have done that many times."

Ferguson feels Wenger's men have an advantage as it is out of the Premier League title race while United has to win its next Premier League game at Middlesbrough to stay on course.

"That's Arsenal's big advantage now, they could play (assistant manager) Pat Rice at right-back and Arsene at centre-forward if they like, it doesn't matter to them at Portsmouth," he said. "We have to play a team to win at Middlesbrough. It's a lunch-time kickoff and I don't think that's right but we will have to get on with it."


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