Van der Sar proves class is ageless
Manchester Utd 2
Arsene Wenger was speaking from bitter experience as he departed Old Trafford on Saturday evening with the warning that Manchester United would "feel the difference" when they faced life without Edwin van der Sar next season.
Aged 40, Van der Sar is heading into retirement this summer, but the United goalkeeper's crucial saves as Alex Ferguson's team overcame Arsenal to progress to the FA Cup semi-finals emphasised Wenger's point.
Wenger has spent three years attempting to find a reliable replacement for Jens Lehmann. Many would even argue that the Arsenal back four has been compromised by their goalkeeper since David Seaman departed in 2003.
Yet as Arsenal's trophy-pursuit this campaign quickly recedes, Wenger must surely concede that, had Van der Sar been on his side rather than United's, Arsenal would now have the Carling Cup sitting in the trophy room, possibly with an FA Cup semi-final to prepare for and a commanding lead in the Premier League.
Ifs, buts and maybes. It should be the Arsenal motto. Still, United will soon be facing the same goalkeeper problems that have troubled Arsenal in recent seasons and perhaps that was the silver lining to emerge from Wenger's latest cloud.
"Van der Sar had a great game," Wenger said. "He is still one of the best goalkeepers in the world." Goals by Fabio da Silva and Wayne Rooney ensured a 2-0 victory for United, but they owed their win to Van der Sar.
The Dutchman's unconvincing performance at Anfield six days earlier made him appear every day of his 40 years, but he redeemed himself against an Arsenal team that should have overcome United's unfamiliar starting XI, despite the confidence-sapping defeat at Barcelona.
Reflex saves from Robin van Persie and Laurent Koscielny, a point-blank stop that kept out Marouane Chamakh's header and two further saves from Samir Nasri and one from Tomas Rosicky illuminated Van der Sar's game. The United supporters chanted "One more year" and "Fergie, sign him up", in an effort to persuade Van der Sar to postpone his retirement, but there will be no about-turn.
"Retirement? It is a weight off my shoulders," Van der Sar said. "I don't hate the thought of retirement. I am looking forward to it and it will be nice to finish it at my peak.
"It was nice to hear the fans, to get recognition from them. You know it is there already from the players and manager, but it is nice to hear the fans singing about you.
"But I won't be changing my mind. I will miss football and the buzz. It has been 20 years, but I have some nice things, a lovely wife and great kids."
While the United manager admits he wishes Van der Sar was "21, not nearly 41", both parties are set on this season being Van der Sar's last.
Emotions aside, Ferguson understands the need for new blood and wary of a great goalkeeper starting to show the signs of aging next season. The manager has drawn up plans for a successor, with Schalke's Manuel Neuer the favoured option ahead of Liverpool's Pepe Reina and Ajax's Maarten Stekelenburg.
Van der Sar's team-mates remain determined to try their luck in attempting to convince him to stay on, however. Rooney said: "The players are trying to persuade him to stay on and I was speaking to him in the shower.
"It's his decision so we've got to respect that, but he's such a great goalkeeper and, despite the age he's at now, for me he's still the best keeper in the world."
Having drawn a line under a turbulent fortnight that has seen United lose twice and engage in a war of attrition with the FA, referees and the media, United can now refocus on the three competitions they continue to contest. Marseille visit Old Trafford in the Champions League tomorrow before league games against Bolton and West Ham -- without the suspended Paul Scholes -- that will shape their title ambitions.
United face a heavy workload, whereas Arsenal, having succumbed in three competitions to Birmingham, Barcelona and half of United's 'B' team, now have only the Premier League to aim for. And with Johan Djourou out for the season having dislocated his shoulder at Old Trafford, the true cost of this defeat is yet to unfold.
"You don't know how they'll respond," Rooney said. "It's been a tough 10 days for them to go out of three competitions.
"But we know they will be fresh for the Premier League games and won't have to focus on other competitions, which we will." (© Daily Telegraph, London)