Football: Schmeichel's spread bet

The handball wizard casts giant shadow on Inter's powers of recovery as the Battle of Milan beckons
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The Independent Online
WITH NOTHING up his sleeve but the most powerful pair of forearms in the business, Peter Schmeichel's sleight of hand is adept as that of a member of the Magic Circle, or maybe Gordon Brown with the nation's economy. Now you see the ball. Shazoom! Now it is clutched to the Manchester United goalkeeper's chest, or rebounding like a projectile towards the opponents' half.

You dare not scoff that his team can yet lift the treble, because Manchester United are in such irrepressible mood. But in this, Schmeichel's valedictory season before his departure to the most likely destination of Serie A, it will require him to continue the equivalent of constantly plucking doves out of silk handkerchiefs to sustain that momentum. There is no evidence that his sorcery over onrushing forwards is declining. The correlation between a secure, confident rearguard and a goalkeeper on top of his game has never been better exemplified than by United at present.

Internazionale's finest are probably still bemused by that save from Ivan Zamorano at Old Trafford 11 days ago, a denial of the Chilean that could yet prove to be the Champions' League quarter-final tie decider. The chagrin of Baggio et al can only be worsened by the fact that on Wednesday they must, once more, attempt to storm the United battlements, where the Dane is the keeper of the keys.

Chelsea have less reason to rue his presence for their FA Cup elimination; yet, once again on Wednesday, the Dane was the bane of the Londoners' ambitions as he frustrated Gianfranco Zola on one notable occasion. On a night when Yorke's first goal was celebrated as a metaphorical wetting of the Beckham baby's head, Schmeichel is United's big daddy. Although, when the BSkyB pundit Ray Wilkins enthused, "He was massive, wasn't he?" the former Chelsea and United midfielder might also have been referring to the Dane's talismanic presence. Yet, there is more than mere agility and anticipation to his methods.

Against Inter, were it not for the slow-motion replay of that curious fist away of the striker's powerful header we would still be pondering, as Des Lynam might have demanded to know, "How did he do that?" The answer is that it's all a question of handball. The sport, it should be stressed; not the offence. Schmeichel played the sport at junior level in Denmark, where it enjoys great popularity. Bill Bailey, coach of the Great Britain handball team and a Manchester United supporter, believes the experience has contributed greatly to the Danish international's game and could help others.

"I see things Peter learned in handball week in, week out," he said. "Obviously, arm strength is very important; it has to be with the ball coming at you at 90-100 mph. The header he saved from Zamorano won't have been travelling as fast as in handball and he used a star jump, where you outstretch your arms and feet and cover as much area as possible while jumping in the air.

"If you watch Peter, you'll see that in one-against-one situations he stays big. Even when he drops down towards the ball, as against Zola, he keeps his upper body up in a hurdle position, so as to give as much area of his body as possible to shoot at."

Never mind shaping up; even with telescopic arms Schmeichel's counterpart at Stamford Bridge, Ed De Goey, would have struggled to frustrate Yorke, who converted his only two of the visitors' four opportunities. You suspect that had Zola similarly punished United in the first half from his only chance we might have been confronted with a different contest entirely. But while Chelsea appeared technically accomplished in their build-ups, even Zola cannot, at the moment, equal the unerring executioner's art exhibited by Yorke, who can also hold the line together so effectively when his team are being stretched wide and deep.

Before yesterday's game at Newcastle he boasted 26 of United's remarkable haul of 100 goals in all competitions. Yet, the achievement of the Trinidad and Tobago striker is in jeopardy of being overlooked purely because it is becoming the rule, not the exception. Maybe it is not necessary to look any further for Footballer of the Year. "At Aston Villa, he was a player that needed a challenge," said Ferguson, who has succeeded in making his pounds 12.5m transfer fee appear a shrewd piece of business. "There are some who can't handle even the prospect of going to Old Trafford, but others, like Dwight, blossom in the set-up."

On Wednesday Yorke and Andy Cole probably only require a goal between them to ensure United's passage to the semi-final. If he even plays some part, Ronaldo, who had recovered from injury sufficiently to test his wounded knee against Parma in Inter's 2-1 defeat in the Italian Cup on Tuesday, would provide a significant psychological advantage, and Ferguson is, wisely, remaining circumspect. "A lot could happen. It's not finished yet," he warned. "The Italians' approach to it, the crowd, the referee, the atmosphere out there. The key is us scoring, but our form away from home has been excellent and although it won't be easy I think we have the players to do it."

Principally, because of the invention and movement of their hosts, Ferguson's men had to perform with uncommon resilience against Chelsea and one suspects it will be a similar story on Wednesday. Against Bayern Munich and Barcelona in the group phase, United's rearguard appeared criss-crossed with fault lines, and it was no coincidence that Schmeichel was undergoing one of his periods of discomfort between the posts. Was it the contemplation of life without United; the problems associated with obtaining employment having thrown himself on the veteran custodian job market?

Whatever the ailment, Ferguson's decision to recommend a family holiday in Barbados seems to have been the antidote and that old authoritative, snarling Dane has returned. With his defenders responding to that transformation, it will take the equivalent of Barnes Wallis to breach the United dam on Wednesday; you suspect Inter don't possess it in their armoury. Juventus, or Dynamo Kiev might have, though, before Ferguson at last seizes that elusive pot.

The official line is that the treble is still on, but just watch the United manager jettison surplus weight of expectation like a hot-air balloon pilot if he spies the Champions' League closing on his radar.