by Teo Teng Kiat
As he rose from the ground, Van der Sar raised both arms in triumph and pumped his fists, while the rest of the Manchester United team ran over to mob him. Just a few seconds earlier, he had pulled off the crucial save to deny Anelka in sudden death, and thus ensured United were champions of Europe again; nine years after 1999, forty after Wembley, and fifty years on from Munich.
That scene in Moscow, 2008, will forever remain the enduring image I have of the giant Dutchman, a man who has left big gloves for any successor to fill following his retirement last season.
Edwin, for me, redefined the art of goalkeeping at Old Trafford. He put his imposing, lanky frame to good use when needed, but he also had two terrific feet, which meant that he was always comfortable with the ball at his feet. Our players were never afraid to pass the ball back to him when needed; the sight of Ferdinand or Vidic using Van der Sar was a sight United supporters have been accustomed to over the years. His superb footwork also meant that his goalkicks became an effective weapon for launching attacks; the long ball for Rooney to score against Villa last season comes to mind.
With no disrespect, the contrast is even more stark, when you can almost feel the unease emanating from the defence whenever Kuzsczak is in goal, none more so evident than the penultimate game against Blackburn last season.
He also instilled a sense of confidence in the defence, and as a back four, knowing that you have a solid goalkeeper to rely on behind you is a great boost. His positioning was exceptional, and this enabled him to make saves that looked routine when they were in actual fact anything but that. Of course, when required to pull off terrific stops, Van der Sar was often equal to the task as well. A simple search of his name on YouTube will show that: clawing away Richard’s left-footed strike in the derby, palming Liedson’s curler that was destined for the top corner, springing like a cat to tip over Muamba’s fierce drive, denying that header from Torres in the Champions League… the list goes on, and on.
Furthermore, at a top club like United, the goalkeeper has to be alert at all times. There are games where the opposition is being dominated, but only need one chance on the counter to score, and he has to be able to prevent this from happening, even if he has nothing to do for the other 89 minutes of the game.A perfect example of this was during the home game against Everton last season, where the score was deadlocked at 0-0 despite United banging on the door the whole afternoon. Everton broke, and Rodwell’s shot took a wicked deflection towards the bottom corner, until Van der Sar reacted superbly to just push it around the post. It was a crucial save, especially in the light of the late headed winner by Hernandez that followed later on, as we secured an important 1-0 win.
As I was watching his testimonial last night, all these small but defining moments came back to me. Even during the game, he still looked as assured as ever in goal, always making the right decisions, coming out at the right time, knowing when or when not to save a shot (he would retract his arm at the last moment if the shot was going to go wide), as well as commanding his defence with ease. Credit to Ajax too, for organizing the whole thing so superbly; the likes of Bergkamp, Overmars, Kluivert, Rijkaard, Kanu etc came to play, along with a host of other past Ajax and Holland stars. It was a mark of how highly regarded Holland’s most capped player was in his own country.
In some ways, the goalkeeper is a terrible position to be in; one mistake, and a ‘keeper will be crucified, even if he has made half a dozen superb stops in the same game. But one can hardly associate Edwin Van der Sar with any goalkeeping howlers, such is his prowess between the sticks. I can only remember one, against West Brom last season, throughout his six years at Old Trafford.
There are many more elegant and well-written pieces out there, but this is just my personal tribute to the great man who has kept goal so brilliantly for us throughout his United career; along with Schmeichel, two of the best United goalkeepers ever, two club legends.
At 40 years of age, after helping us to a fourth Premier League title in five years and a third European final in four years, and leaving at a stage where many consider him to be the best goalkeeper in the world right now.
Thank you, Edwin, for all those saves, and all the lovely memories you have given us.
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