FOOTBALL: Edwin's new contract must have a penalty clause

England's No 1 problem

As the Fulham faithful bayed their Cantona-esque chant "Ooh aah, Van der Sar" into the chill night air at Craven Cottage on Wednesday and the chap on the loudspeaker called for "a special round of applause for a superb performance" by their goal-keeper, the recipient of the adulation wandered around the field post-match, accepting the congratulations and embraces of team-mates and club colleagues.

Since Edwin van der Sar doesn't do exultation, he merely appeared slightly bemused, or even dazed. With reason. He had just saved two penalties in one game, something which had never previously happened in the 34-year-old Dutchman's 16 years as a professional. His acrobatics, abetted by Lee Clark's goal in added time, not only dismayed Aston Villa but chiselled for Fulham a point they did not really merit in the battle to stay clear of the relegation whirlpool.

It was a fine way for Van der Sar to mark his decision to add another year to his contract with the club and also, perhaps, a warning that England should mind where they place the ball should they win a penalty against Holland in the friendly international at Villa Park this week.

After twice denying Juan Pablo Angel, Van der Sar admitted: "I'm not well known as a penalty killer, but maybe in my old age I am still capable of learning and improving myself. On the first one I watched how he was running up and decided to go 100 per cent to the right. It is always a good save, of course, from a penalty, but the first save was an extra- good one. He struck it well, it went a bit low and it was a good reaction with my hands. On the second one, he had the same run-in, so I thought I'd go the same way."

Watching all this with a longer face than any of the other Villa players was Olof Mellberg, his mind doubtless focused on a summer's night and a quarter-final shoot-out in Portugal at Euro 2004, when Van der Sar's save from his spot-kick put Holland into the semi-finals and sent Sweden home. It was the first time Van der Sar had come out on top in four shoot- outs for his country in an international career which embraces 10 years and 95 caps.

In that decade Van der Sar has managed 47 clean sheets, an average of one every other game for Holland, and apart from one crazy night six years ago during which the Dutch and the Belgians shared 10 goals in a frenzied friendly, he has let in four goals only once. That, famously, was at Euro 1996, when Terry Venables' England won 4-1.

Van der Sar grimaced at the memory. "That was a bad one. We were quite confident that day, but from the start England were all over us. Alan Shearer got one past me from a penalty. I went to the right corner that day, too, but he struck it a bit too well.

"Normally it is a great experience to appear at Wembley, but since I played there on just that one occasion, I'll tell you, I don't regard it as the best stadium in the world for me. Maybe if I keep on playing a bit longer I can get a game in the new Wembley," he smiled.

"In the meantime, hopefully we can get a better result against England on Wednesday [he captains the side in the absence of Edgar Davids]. We are building a young team right now and that takes time, but we are doing well in the qualifying for next year's World Cup, so this will be a good way to test our progress."

In qualifying Group One of World Cup 2006 the Dutch are top on goal difference over Romania, unbeaten and with 10 points from four games. Next month Holland must visit Bucharest, a tough one, followed by an easier home match against Armenia (or, as Van der Sar called them, Moldavia, but you know what he means). Van der Sar, fitness permitting, is a certainty for both matches.

"He is still absolutely our number one goalkeeper," said the Dutch radio reporter Rob Fleur. "There is still no sign, after all these years, of anyone else who might push him into second place since he made his debut for Holland against Belarus in 1995. Edwin is not a man who seeks publicity but he is popular with us because he is such a consistent keeper; he is the best."

It is an opinion shared by Peter Schmeichel, no mean operator himself in his time. The former Manchester Uni-ted man, now a BBC pundit, calls him "a magnificent goalkeeper who because of his size commands his penalty area very well". That command, frequently extending outside the strict limits of his domain, was never more in evidence than last Wednesday as Fulham struggled. Van der Sar, six-and-a-half-feet tall, operated at times virtually as a sweeper, taking almost every free-kick inside his own half and once only just stopping himself from doing a Grobbelaar and taking a throw-in.

It is clear that Edwin van der Sar cares a lot about Fulham and their wellbeing. Despite reports of interest from Arsenal and Manchester United, to whom he would have been an asset, he opted to add a year to his contract, partly because he and his family like London's quality of life. The aim to lift his club shares priority with extending his run in Holland's goal. And saving penalties along the way for both, if possible.

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