Tomorrow's match at St James' Park will be about more than just three points and Christmas momentum. The two goalkeepers of the season, Tim Krul of Newcastle United and Michel Vorm of Swansea City will meet, with the pair also competing to represent the Netherlands in Euro 2012. They have 11 Dutch caps between them, but are both desperate to line up behind Wesley Sneijder, Robin van Persie and Co next June.
The success of the two may be a surprise to some. Krul spent last season rotating with Steven Harper in goal, but has this season made the role his own. Indeed, Harper has been out on loan at Brighton & Hove Albion. Vorm was not part of Swansea's promotion team last year, but arrived from FC Utrecht in August for £1.5m and has settled in exceptionally well.
The Newcastle goalkeeping coach, Andy Woodman, told The Independent yesterday how swiftly he was impressed with Krul when he arrived at the club last year. "I knew as soon as I came through the door the potential of this young lad to become a top international goalkeeper," Woodman said.
It was only this summer that Krul imposed himself as the leading man. "All keepers want to be No 1 but unfortunately only one can come to the forefront and Tim worked well in the summer," Woodman added. "He's been unbelievable, I think he's probably been the best keeper in the Premiership so far."
Krul's combination of a territorial domination of his area with a gift for athletic saves has been crucial to Newcastle's excellent start to the season. Before last Saturday, when they went to Norwich without their three specialist centre-backs and lost 4-2, Alan Pardew's team had conceded just 15 goals in their first 14 League games.
Woodman was soon impressed with Krul's range of skills: "He's got an old head on young shoulders, there's no doubt about that. He's very calm in between the goal. And he's got this fantastic ability to pull off these match-winning saves at the right time. He does that on a regular basis, he really can pull off a wonder save." Anyone who saw the 23-year-old repel Nemanja Vidic's spitting-distance header in the 1-1 draw at Old Trafford last month will know he is right.
That remarkable maturity, for a goalkeeper in only his second meaningful Premier League season, certainly helps Newcastle's defence. "He takes a lot of pressure off the back four as well. He comes for crosses," Woodman adds. "And in the Premiership that's not easy to do, with the quality of the delivery."
"He's a fantastic talker. He's not going to be a barker or a shouter, but he knows how important his centre-halves are to him. They've got a close unit, and him and Steven Taylor are probably best friends, which is important between a keeper and a centre-half."
Krul at least had the benefit of being at Newcastle since he was 17. Vorm arrived in Swansea four months ago and has settled with remarkable ease. "Since he's come in he's been absolutely fantastic, setting standards within the Premier League," the Swansea goalkeeping coach, Adrian Tucker, said.
Swansea have played a style of possession football almost unknown in promoted clubs , with Vorm's thoughtful distribution a necessary part of it. "The way we play has a style which applies to the goalkeeper as well," Tucker said. "It's a certain type of individual that we're looking for. He fits into that in terms of what he can do with his distribution."
But the primary function of a goalkeeper is stopping moves, not starting them, and Vorm's preternatural reflexes and agility have allowed him to make saves as thrilling and important as any goal.
Jimmy Rimmer, the former Swansea keeper who was part of European Cup-winning squads at Manchester United and Aston Villa, is impressed. "On shot-stopping he's been brilliant, absolutely," he said, "some of the saves he's making are unbelievable. I like Pepe Reina from Liverpool as well, and Vorm reminds me of him now, in his kicking and shot-stopping."
Vorm has made two crucial penalty saves this season, against Wigan and Fulham, and is known as "The Penalty Killer". It is no shock to Foeke Booy, Utrecht's technical director and former head coach. "He's very athletic, he's very fast in his moves and very fast with his hands, so it didn't surprise me that he stops penalty kicks," he said. "Also before the game he prepares himself very well."
Booy remembers Vorm as "a very talented goal-keeper" in the Utrecht academy, and is impressed at his success given his height (he is only 6ft tall). "His kick is very good," he said, "his reactions, his jump is very high. Although his length is not 1.90m or 1.95m, he's very athletic. He is very concentrated, very focused. He's very relaxed in the goal, so he's not a goalkeeper who makes the defence nervous."
There can not have been many better deployments of £1.5m in recent football history. "The way he's doing it, he is the find of the season," said Rimmer.
Vorm and Krul's form puts pressure on current Netherlands goalkeeper Maarten Stekelenburg, with the Premier League pair both eager to displace him. "I don't think Vorm will accept being Dutch No 2," Tucker said. "I'm sure both Michel and Tim are not happy just to be that second or third spot."
Tucker's counterpart at Newcastle, Woodman, has predicted Krul's international future: "I sat with him one day and said: 'Look, we're going to make you the national goalkeeper between us, we're going to make you No 1 in the Dutch squad.'" Krul won his first cap in June, keeping a clean sheet in a friendly against Brazil. "I was one of the first people he rung," Woodman added, "and I said: 'You've got the first piece in the jigsaw there.'"
With two caps to Vorm's nine, Krul has more work to do to secure his place in Poland and Ukraine. "It's in our plans to make sure he's on that train to that tournament," said Woodman, "and once you're in that squad anything can happen."
Woodman is confident that the 23-year-old (Vorm is 28) would not be daunted by starting in goal for the third-favourites. "You couldn't imagine him going anywhere and thinking 'I'm with these names'. He'll go there and do his job, and come back home and have a nice evening with his family. And that's why I think Tim will play at the top, because he'll never get carried away with it all."
Vorm, though, will push him all the way. "He'll leave no stone unturned given the opportunity to be a top international goalkeeper," Tucker said, "and a No 1 international in the future." The battle continues tomorrow afternoon.
Dutch masters: Premier League keepers
Edwin van der Sar
Joined Fulham from Juventus in 2001 for their first season in top flight. Moved to United and picked up four titles before retiring last summer. Is also Holland's most-capped player with 130 appearances.
Won five trophies in two seasons at Liverpool, playing a pivotal part in the 2001 treble season. Left for Real Sociedad after Gérard Houllier brought in Chris Kirkland and Jerzy Dudek, before returning to England with Portsmouth in 2005 – and the blue half of Merseyside on loan.
Ed de Goey
The giant Dutchman arrived at Chelsea from Feyenoord in 1997 for £2m, and earned 72 clean sheets in 179 games. Picked up a League Cup, Cup Winners' Cup and FA Cup but lost his place to Carlo Cudicini.
Double Dutch: Tale of the tape
Tim Krul/Michel Vorm
23 Age 28
6ft 2in Height 6ft
11st 6lb Weight 13st 3lb
2 Netherlands caps 9
Falkirk (loan), Carlisle (loan) Previous clubs Utrecht, Den Bosch (loan)
36 PL games 15
8 PL clean sheets 7
1.58 Goals conceded per PL game 1.3Reuse content