Why Sorensen is keeping to the Schmeichel strut holds

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The Independent Football

Apart from his happy knack of saving Alan Shearer penalties, Thomas Sorensen's most exciting moments, even after five years in English football, continue to be his matches against top teams in the best stadiums. And, for the 6ft 4in goalkeeper, no setting is more inspiring than Old Trafford, where he will play for Denmark this afternoon.

That was the stage for his hero, role model and compatriot Peter Schmeichel to strut his stuff so dramatically for so long, and where Sorensen hopes to do better than the last time he faced England. That was at Niigata in the 2002 World Cup, where he was beaten three times, once embarrassingly.

"You can never talk about this being a rematch of that one,'' said Sorensen, relaxing at the Bodymoor Heath training ground of his new club, Aston Villa. "There is no World Cup quarter-final at stake, that's the difference. I think both teams will be looking at it as the friendly it is and try a few things. Hopefully it will be a good game as well in a great atmosphere at a great stadium.

"Both teams will be relaxed because they have already qualified for Euro 2004 and can start building some momentum towards the summer. This is the first of three great friendlies for us: England, Turkey and Spain, all away. Playing England is always a memorable day because they are one of the biggest footballing nations, and you always want to measure yourself against those kind of teams. So, yeah, a good result would definitely boost morale. It is always great to be playing the English team if you are in the League here, so you can go back to your club and be able to give people in the dressing room a bit of stick."

England, he felt, had "definitely improved since the World Cup". "They look a solid team, and even when they are under pressure they still grind out results. They have players who can make a difference, who even on a bad day can turn things around.''

Another important factor, which Sorensen says Denmark share with England, is a settled squad. "You need a settled first 11, because when you don't train week in, week out, it is so important you know each other and that you can gel. That has been the Danish strength. We are a small footballing nation and though we have some very, very good players we just haven't got 40 of them like England. Then again, it has probably been harder for [Sven Goran] Eriksson to pick a team because there are so many pushing for a place. I think he has done a good job and found a winning 11.''

Finding a winning 11 in which to play has not been easy for Sorensen of late. Signed by Sunderland from his home-town club Odense BK for £500,000 in 1998, he proved one of then manager Peter Reid's most astute purchases as the club won promotion and followed up by finishing seventh in successive Premiership seasons.

"I will always be grateful to Peter for giving me a chance to come to England when I was a young unknown,'' he said, insisting his fondness for Sunderland has outlasted the past two disastrous seasons with them. "I learnt a lot in those two years, but you do get to the point where you are tired of losing. Even so, the club are still very close to my heart, and their result is always the first one I look for.''

Those results have not exactly been inspiring, either, since Sorensen's £2m move to Villa in the summer, but he is certain, as that song tells us, that things can only get better. "This club have been on a low for a few years now and you can't expect to be challenging for a championship right away, you need to be realistic. But I can see we are moving in the right direction, and that has helped me.''

Help was what Schmeichel provided in dollops in the years when he possessed lock and key to the Denmark goal and Sorensen looked on from the sidelines. "I was on the national squad for quite a few years and I was getting a bit impatient at the end. But Peter was such a great player that I decided the best thing was to learn as much as I could from him, and he was very helpful, passing things on and giving me advice on my career. But in the end it was nice to step in.

"I have had 31 games for Denmark now, which means I have another 100 to go before I get where he was, so I can't promise I will match him. But as long as you feel at your top level and are still number one in your country, you want to be playing as long as you feel it is fun. If that gets me to 129 caps like Peter Schmeichel, then so be it.''

Though Sorensen's place in goal is as unchallenged as Schmeichel's used to be, his time at Sunderland impressed on him how quickly things can change. "You may be number one but you have to prove every weekend you can be number one for the future. That's why I work so hard in training and never take anything for granted. If I am not on top of my game somebody else will be looking to get ahead of me. That's the way it is in the national team, and here at Villa as well.''