There is still some doubt that Manchester United goalkeeper Edwin van der Sar will actually hang up his mitts at the end of this season.
Even at the age of 40 the commonly held view is that van der Sar’s displays this season have been so impressive that another campaign is not out of the question.
Whether he retires this season or next van der Sar will go down as one of Sir Alex Ferguson’s best signings and the goalkeeper who finally filled the hole left when Peter Schmeichel departed Old Trafford.
Between 1999 (Schmeichel leaving) and 2005 (van der Sar’s arrival) there was a case to be made for attaching a revolving door to the goalposts at Old Trafford.
In no particular order Fabien Barthez, Mark Bosnich, Massimo Taibi, Roy Carroll, Tim Howard and Ricardo Lopez were all given a chance to prove their credentials but all failed – some more spectacularly than others.
Ironically, Ferguson had also faced similar problems between the sticks before Schmeichel signed. And it is no coincidence that United’s most successful spells have been marked by the presence of these two outstanding keepers with each backstopping a Champions League winning United side.
Like Schmeichel, van der Sar was an outstanding goalkeeper for his country and his 130 caps make him the most capped player in the history of the Netherlands.
Where the two careers diverge is that van der Sar had achieved European club success many years before he arrived at Old Trafford.
In nine years at Ajax, van der Sar won four league titles, three domestic cups as well as the UEFA Cup, the Champions League and an Intercontinental Cup.
With such accomplishments bookending his career you would expect that success would have been ever present– but it was not. In fact, there was a period when van der Sar was no longer considered to be one of the best – far from it.
A move to Juventus in 1999 turned sour and cumulated in van der Sar being made the scapegoat for Juventus’ failure to catch Roma in the 2000/01 Serie A season.
With 10 games remaining Juventus were trying to close a nine point gap on Roma at the top of Serie A. The two teams played each in Turin and by half time Juventus had built a 2-0 lead – a score-line that held until ten minutes to go.
Roma tied the game and van der Sar took the heat. He was at fault on the first goal and on the second he parried a shot from Roma’s Hidetoshi Nakata straight to Montella who equalized.
The two errors proved pivotal as Roma would eventually take the title by just two points. Before the 2001/02 season had kicked off Juventus had signed Parma keeper Gianluigi Buffon to replace the Dutchman.
If it was not for an insightful manager who had just piloted his side back into the top flight for the first time in over three decades Van der Sar’s career may have continued to spiral downward.
The team was Fulham and the manager was Jean Tigana. During his four years at Craven Cottage van der Sar rebuilt his reputation and recaptured the form that had made him such a highly regarded keeper both domestically and internationally.
Van der Sar never won any trophies with Fulham but he did help them solidify their place in the Premier League and next season will be the Cottagers eleventh consecutive season in the top flight of English football.
By 2005 Ferguson was again in the market for a goalkeeper having lost faith in American Tim Howard.
And as it turned out the $4M paid to Fulham by Manchester United was one of the best pieces of business done during the Fergie-era.
It is ironic that as Manchester United tries to head off a late season charge from Chelsea that both van der Sar and the player he replaced Tim Howard (Chelsea are away to Everton on the last day of the season) may turn out to be pivotal in deciding the fate of the 2011 Premier League title.
Oh yes…and did I mention that Carlo Ancelotti was in charge of Juventus during van der Sar’s spell?
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