Football: Peter the greater

European Cup final: Schmeichel faces the final act as his counterpart survives national lampoon
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The Independent Online
DO YOU KNOW this man? He is a goalkeeper, tall, strong, straw blond, is as publicly loud as he is privately quiet and he will lead his team into the final of the European Cup? The identikit portrait would be instantly recognisable on both sides of Wednesday night's divide. To the fans of Bayern, it is Oliver Kahn, whose brilliance rescued Bayern's dreams of a treble in the second leg of the semi-final against Kiev; to anyone south of Eskimo country or outside the range of the Munich trams, it is Peter Schmeichel, the one of the two current United players, along with David Beckham, George Best reckons might have strengthened the 1968 side.

On paper, the pair are indivisible. Schmeichel is older, a fraction taller and maybe a decibel or two louder. Kahn thinks they could shout to each other across the Nou Camp on Wednesday, if necessary. Both have unorthodox styles, effective rather than textbook, both are prone to rushes of blood, most notably for Schmeichel when his vain dash to punch a long throw-in in the dying moments of the Champions' League tie in Munich cost United a valuable victory.

Discretion has not always been the better part of valour for the United keeper, who regards encroachment on his penalty area as a capital offence. But it is not too portentous to say that whichever goalkeeper remains coolest in the fading warmth of a Catalan evening will capture the ultimate spoils. The rival coaches sound as if they are sending their heavyweight prizefighters into the ring. The tale of the tape is to Schmeichel's advantage; at 6ft 4in he's an inch taller, at 16st two stone heavier. "He's the best," says Ottmar Hitzfeld of Kahn. The words have an echo at Old Trafford. "I don't mind repeating myself," says Alex Ferguson. "But Peter is the best I've ever had and the best this club's ever had."

The boxing analogy will be too close for either man's comfort in Barcelona. The bigger the occasion, the greater the sense of isolation for a goalkeeper. The thought that one mistake could cost their team the dearest prize of all is one they have to confront, rationalise and conquer and, not surprisingly, there have been signs of fraying nerves in both camps these last few days. Schmeichel refused almost all requests for interviews at the United open day last Tuesday; Kahn delayed his entrance to Bayern's media day until the last moment before granting a peremptory audience to remaining journalists.

Like Schmeichel, you have to rummage around for glimpses of the man behind the iron mask in Kahn. "He's very serious about his job," explains Hitzfeld. "He is very strong mentally, but he's a very introverted person. The man you see on the field is not the same as the one off it. He keeps his private life very divorced from his public image."

It is just as well. On a Saturday night comedy slot on Sat1, the German satellite station, the comedian Harold Schmidt has remorselessly lampooned the German goalkeeper, saying he looks and acts like an ape. The attacks have borne fruit, literally. On away grounds, Kahn is pelted with bananas. But Kahn's sudden aberrations have become the stuff of legend, particularly as the pressure has grown on Germany's most glamorous club. Against Borussia Monchengladbach, Kahn was sent off for two bad fouls, compounded by dissent.

Soon after, he bit Dortmund's Heiko Herrlich in the neck and launched such an aggressive studs-up charge on Stefan Chapuiset the picture made the front page of every single paper the following morning. Kahn said that was his way of showing aggression and, though the Swiss forward was not injured, the foul looked terrible. In the tabloid German press, he became "Karate Kahn".

To add to his problems, Jupp Derwall, the former national team manager, criticised Kahn for being technically inadequate and mentally weak. "Whenever I see him in goal, I feel uncomfortable," he said. "Why," replied Kahn, "does everyone have to slap me in the face all the time? It just increases the pressure and the chances of making more mistakes." Kahn's defence was not helped when he dived over an innocuous free-kick in the friendly against Holland earlier in the year nor by his patchy displays in Germany's stuttering qualifying campaign for the European Champ- ionships. It is Kahn's misfortune that, after years of waiting in the wings while Berti Vogts kept faith with Andreas Kopke, Kahn has emerged as the No 1 in the poorest and most derided national team for 40 years.

Sitting in the cafe of Bayern's handsome training headquarters, Kahn looked about as frail as Robocop. Presence, he said, was a crucial asset for a goalkeeper and both he and Schmeichel exuded it. "You have to be strong or else you won't have a chance against some of the best strikers in the world. Showing you're in command, refusing to be intimidated. These are the small, but important things, which make opposing players just that little bit frightened of you.

"Peter is one of the best goalkeepers in the world and he plays the same way as me. We're both loud and aggressive and we want to make everyone notice that we're there." Persistent earache is the most common complaint of United's defenders, verbal abuse the most public demonstration of the Dane's ferocious quest for perfection. Ronny Johnsen knew what to expect from watching Schmeichel on television, but coming within hearing range for the first time was still a shock. "I thought, `What is this? Is this personal?'," the Norwegian said. "Then I realised it's just his way of keeping us on our toes. We have an argument and then a few seconds later it's all forgotten. He is so involved and wants to win so much."

"No one is frightened of him," says Alex Ferguson. "Behind the bluff, he is completely normal. He just loves to be domineering." In the United dressing-room, they get their own back by calling him the German because he moans so much. "Sometimes, people would like to see me put my head in the refrigerator to cool down," he says. "But that's never been me."

Schmeichel, a proud, softly spoken and intelligent man, like Kahn, probably had not fully anticipated the consequences of his decision to leave Old Trafford at the end of the season. United's history is heavy enough without the added weight of personal fulfilment. Putting the club back where it belongs in his last game for the club is almost too corny a finale and in the recesses of the Dane's mind there will be a nagging feeling that football is not so easily choreographed. "There is no better stage to end it on, but I can't afford to have personal feelings in this just because it's my last game," he says. "To finish with United winning the European Cup would be fantastic. It's what boyhood dreams are made of, but I'm blessed by nature to be able to separate personal feelings from my business as a professional." United will draw from the well of his professionalism one final time.

Bob Wilson, who will cast a particularly critical eye over both keepers as host of ITV's coverage of the final, believes the similarities end as soon as they take the field. "Schmeichel is streets ahead of Kahn in terms of presence," he says. "Bob Paisley once signed Bruce Grobbelaar after seeing him in the warm-up. Well, Schmeichel has that sort of aura about him. You think, `Crikey, look at the way he fills that goal'. Kahn doesn't give me that feeling. I know he had a brilliant game against Kiev and, at the age of 30, he is absolutely coming to his peak, but it's still a case of fingers crossed with him. Schmeichel is 35, at that age where you think you know pretty well all there is to know about your craft and you just wish you'd known it all a bit earlier. He still has his moments, like that one against Bayern, but just think how many times he has saved United? You know that star-jump save he does. That's just natural, aggressive, instinctive, never-say-die goalkeeping. I've never seen anyone do anything like that. That's Peter. It's his trademark."

Luck will play its part too, says Wilson. "The best thing is if you go for a really good cross, it sticks and you get that early psychological boost. That's important." If it comes down to penalties, captain v captain, the sense of isolation will be complete for both. Kahn says he doesn't like penalties; Schmeichel will view them as his destiny. The smart money will be on United's blond.