Manchester United have begun the planning for Edwin van der Sar's retirement this summer by scouting Maarten Stekelenburg, who followed Van der Sar with Ajax and Holland.
Van der Sar misses today's FA Cup fourth-round tie at Southampton, when the promising Anders Lindegaard will probably start, ahead of Tomasz Kuszczak. United acknowledged yesterday they had been watching Ajax's tall Stekelenburg (28).
Alex Ferguson believes United have "learned" about the importance of preparing for the future following Peter Schmeichel's exit in 1999.
The Treble-winners spent the following season using Mark Bosnich, Raimond van der Gouw and Massimo Taibi.
"We hope we're better organised this time," said Ferguson yesterday. "I made a mistake. I should have taken Van der Sar at that time but didn't do. We tried several goalkeepers in the interim before I eventually got Edwin. Hopefully we'll be better prepared this time. We've learned from that."
United have also looked at two highly regarded keepers, Atletico Madrid's 20-year-old David de Gea and Sporting Lisbon's Rui Patricio (22). Stekelenburg is far more experienced, having played in last summer's World Cup final.
"Stekelenburg is indeed a keeper who is at the top of our wanted list," Ferguson's assistant Rene Meulensteen told Dutch radio.
"We naturally talk a lot among ourselves about who should replace Van der Sar. Alex Ferguson has spoken about Stekelenburg with Edwin, and that does not seem strange to me at all."
Whoever starts in goal for United next season has big gloves to fill. Since joining United from Fulham for £2m in 2005, some of Van der Sar's saves in his 243 games have been breathtaking.
Van der Sar has earned constant praise for his ability to play as a "sweeper-keeper", anticipating danger quickly, and for his excellent distribution, not forgetting that astonishing run of 1,311 League minutes unbeaten in the 2008-09 season.
European combat has often brought the best out of him. One superb stop somehow denied the mighty Lionel Messi of Barcelona. One right-foot thunderbolt from Inter Milan's Dejan Stankovic was tipped away in the San Siro.
His finest moment for United came in the rain in Moscow, guessing Nicolas Anelka's penalty intentions and diving to his right to win the Champions League in 2008.
Still lean and alert, there is a feeling that Van der Sar actually leaves too soon, that 40 should not be deemed closing time for a keeper who has always kept himself fit. "He could (carry on for another year)," agreed Ferguson. "But I think he wants to go out at the very top.
"It's pointless trying to be Superman into your forties and there always has to be a time for everyone in football. It's one of the sad parts of my job when you see players eventually get to the stage where age takes over.
"You know they're going to hit the wall sometime. All Edwin is doing is making sure that he doesn't hit the wall while he's at United."
It is the longevity of Van der Sar's career that will be remembered as well as the brilliant saves. He won the Champions League with Ajax in 1995 and United in 2008, high points of a career that also took in Juventus and Fulham, where he will always be held in high regard.
Van der Sar's dedication has been matched by his awareness of football's usefulness as a power for social good; he readily supported charity and community initiatives, throwing himself into projects wholeheartedly.
"He's a special man," added Ferguson. "The impact as a professional is something I will always remember of him. He's been absolutely fantastic. His training and performances have been examples to the young players.
"There's always going to be a comparison between Peter and Edwin. I've been very fortunate having two magnificent goalkeepers."
While Van der Sar prepares to leave, Dimitar Berbatov is expected to extend a contract that expires in 18 months and United indicated yesterday their keenness for him to stay. Ferguson confirmed that Berbatov, who turns 30 tomorrow, would remain at Old Trafford. "Yes. It's not an issue. He's under contract at the moment."
The Bulgarian has scored 20 goals already this season and Ferguson expects more. "He's playing with great confidence and could easily get to the 30 mark," said the United manager, who dismissed the criticism of his lack of speed.
"Teddy Sheringham had no pace, Alan Shearer had no pace and they were great strikers. Ruud van Nistelrooy wasn't quick but he was a good goalscorer. It's what happens in the penalty box.
"Some players are quick up top in the penalty box, they only need a yard.
"Allan Clarke at Leeds was that type of player in the box. You don't necessarily need to be quick to be a top striker."
Meanwhile, United's South Korean midfielder Ji-Sung Park has announced he is retiring from international football. (© Daily Telegraph, London)
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