The latest Dutchman heading for the United goal?
We know who it won’t be, but are we any closer to knowing who it will be?
On the pitch, it was a good week for Manchester United, but off the field, the hunt for Edwin van der Sar’s successor in the United goal descended into a muddy version of clarity.
Manuel Neuer’s performance in the first leg of Schalke’s Champions League semi-final was a perfect audition for the Old Trafford role – except for one crucial detail. It wasn’t an audition. Sir Alex Ferguson may have been impressed with Neuer’s stunning (and Schmeichel-esque) performance, but the German’s heart belongs to someone else. The current first choice of the Mannschaft doesn’t want to leave Germany and has stated his determination to win at least one Bundesliga title before even considering a move abroad. And he means it. His comments don’t seem to be laced with the ‘I’m not available, but chase me with a big bag of cash and we’ll see what happens’ subtext that often seems to accompany the well rehearsed soundbites. It looks like he his betrothed to Bayern Munich and although negotiations are yet to begin, it looks like it’s only the size of the dowry that needs to be finalised. There was talk of Sir Alex hijacking the arrangement in a similar manner to how he snapped Dimitar Berbatov from the jaws of Man City a couple of years ago, but in this case Neuer both looks and sounds like a man heading for Bavaria.
It was also a week in which Pepe Reina confirmed he would be staying at Liverpool – until the point the Spaniard can decipher if the latest dawn is of the ‘genuine’ or the ‘false’ variety. In future, Reina’s fiercely competitive nature may dictate a move to Old Trafford is required, but so far he has been impressed by the Dalglish revolution and is apparently willing to give King Kenny another season of his time. Talk of Gigi Buffon coming to the Premier League was aimed at getting an improved deal at Juventus and makes Man Utd an unlikely destination.
So where does that leave us? I’ve said before, that after a mixed record in signing goalkeepers, Fergie will almost certainly be looking for someone with the following profile:
(1) late 20s+
(2) Champions League and/or international experience
(3) not injury prone
The notion of Fergie pleading with Van der Sar to stay on for another season is something that I initially dismissed out of hand, but as time goes by and a standout candidate fails to emerge, it’s impossible to fully discount. Granted, it’s hard to imagine Fergie pleading with anyone for anything, but even in his 40s van der Sar has been exceptional and the reassurance he provides has been of great benefit to a United defence that has looked vulnerable at times this season. By all accounts Mrs. van der Sar has recovered from her health scare last Christmas and it could be worth Fergie’s while to test the Dutchman’s resolve to retire.
For my money, Maarten Stekelenburg looks the most likely candidate, but I’m concerned I’m making too much of a connection between Stekelenburg being Van der Sar’s replacement at international level and his chances of being Van der Sar’s replacement at club level. In the transfer market, placing too much faith in form shown in the Dutch league is fraught with danger (Kezman) so should we not think the same way when it comes to goalkeepers? Aside from 4 or 5 top teams, the league is filled with average opposition so can Fergie really be certain he’s getting proven performer at the highest level? Of course Stekelenburg did make it all the way to a World Cup Final with the Netherlands and that’s the highest level of competition you can get, right? Well yes, but there is a but. It sounds almost insane to say it, but the cumulative pressure and standards expected throughout the course of 50 odd games in the typical Manchester United season are going to be far in excess of that experienced in the seven games of a World Cup.
In terms of talent, David De Gea could be an instant hit at Old Trafford, but his age doesn’t fit what Sir Alex is likely to look for. Goalkeeping coach, Eric Steele is said to be a big fan (and scurrilously rumoured to be learning Spanish for De Gea’s arrival), but De Gea’s lack of experience in the Champions League and the spot-light in general do cast doubt about the likelihood of a move. All reports suggest that Atletico youngster is a very level-headed and mature 20 year old, but that’s no guarantee that he’ll settle in England or be able to handle the intense scrutiny that comes with the Old Trafford keeping job. Reports from Spain suggest Atletico Madrid have offered De Gea a contract with a view to ending the speculation once and for all. If he wants to go, he can go, but if he wants to stay, it ends now and he knuckles down for the next few years. With age on his side, my inkling is De Gea may just sit tight for a couple more years, build his reputation and eventually have his pick of clubs and salaries – at which point he may only be the ripe old age of 23 or 24.
I think there’s a joker in the pack, but I can’t figure out who it might be. Hugo Lloris (almost) perfectly fits the bill, but doesn’t appear to have been scouted too heavily. On a similarly Gallic theme, Steve Mandanda performed well when Marseille and Man Utd met in the Last 16 of the Champions League. He has had a decent amount of experience and is exceptionally agile, but his handling may not be up to scratch for the Premier League. Too often he needs a couple of attempts to gather then ball and that’s unlikely to have gone unnoticed by Ferguson and Steele. Inter Milan’s Julio Cesar ticks all three boxes, but I think his reluctance to catch the ball means trouble. There’s nothing wrong with a goalkeeper punching or parrying when the situation requires, but the sheer number of times the Brazilian opts against the catch will leave him open to ridicule from the media and it won’t be long before the dreaded ‘calamity’ label is applied irrevocably to his shoulders. In terms of talent, Shay Given must still be worthy of consideration, but the injury category has become a concern of late. For much of his career, the Irishman seemed to have a charmed life in terms of fitness, but in the last few seasons he has picked up some major knocks that have ruled him out of action for months at a time. Craig Gordon has been linked in the past, but his familiarity with the Sunderland physio’s table will count against him. Sebastian Frey is a little considered outsider, but again injury may be a worry. He hasn’t played since November and won’t until the new season at the earliest. In terms of age and experience, he might be in the frame and an added bonus (in Sir Alex’s eyes at least) would be his rejection of international football. I’ve heard the name of Fernando Muslera being mentioned and I would suggest if Fergie does sign him, it’s part of a well-timed revenge on the Glazer family and Fergie’s retirement will arrive seconds later. Poor decision maker, a flapper at crosses extraordinaire and almost totally unsuitable to the Premier League, the Uruguayan’s stunning agility catches the eye, but I think he would get savaged in England and furthermore, Fergie knows it.
As the date for Van der Sar to hang up his gloves comes ever closer, the hunt for a replacement is looking less than finalised. Maybe Fergie could do worse than trying to hang on to his Dutch of class.
If you think I’ve missed out on any potential United recruits, let me know in the comments section.