Goalkeepers wary of new ball game

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The Independent Online

Managers and goalkeeping coaches are predicting a sharp increase in the number of goals scored in the Premiership this season - especially from long range - following the introduction of a new, lighter football. Mitre, the suppliers since the Premier League began, have lost the contract to Nike, who claim that their ball is faster, more responsive and scientifically rounder.

Managers and goalkeeping coaches are predicting a sharp increase in the number of goals scored in the Premiership this season - especially from long range - following the introduction of a new, lighter football. Mitre, the suppliers since the Premier League began, have lost the contract to Nike, who claim that their ball is faster, more responsive and scientifically rounder.

Whatever the technology involved in creating the Geo Merlin ball, its wizardry has divided dressing-rooms, with goalkeepers understandably concerned about their job being made even harder, while outfield players have been practising shooting with relish from 35 and 40 yards.

"It moves more than any ball we've ever seen," the Arsenal goalkeeping coach, Bob Wilson, said yesterday. "The goalkeepers I've spoken to are very wary of it and I've yet to find one who really likes it. It's lighter and much, much faster, and the movement on it from a power strike can be at least one body's width. So it can make goalkeepers look a little bit silly. They'll feel they've got to parry the ball far more than before, and the priority will be just keeping it out.

"From the point of view of [outfield players'] technique, the first touch has to be precise, otherwise the ball's gone. If their touch isn't good, they'll also look very silly. But unlike goalkeepers, they're not normally receiving it at 70 to 90 mph. It will be very entertaining."

Nike are understood to have paid almost £10m for the three-year deal, after bidding against adidas, who supplied the Euro 2000 balls, and Mitre. The Geo Merlin was used in last season's Spanish and Brazilian leagues and the European Champions' League final, but the Football Association is sticking with Mitre for FA Cup and England games, as is the Nationwide League.

Liverpool's Sander Westerfeld ("it's very slippery and moves around all over the place") and the Coventry manager Gordon Strachan ("I hate it, it's far too quick and unpredictable") are among those who have not enjoyed their pre-season work with the new ball. But it has been more positively received by Sunderland's Peter Reid, Leicester's Peter Taylor and Arsenal's Arsÿne Wenger, whose initial reservations have been overcome: "When we tried it two years ago, it wasn't stable in the air, but now it is. If I was a goalkeeper, I wouldn't like it, but do you want a more attractive game or not? Premier League games will definitely have more goals and from longer range." Wenger has been encouraging his players to shoot from further out and to follow up all shots in case the goalkeeper cannot hold them.

Arsenal still do not know whether Sylvain Wilford will be among those players for the new season. Wenger has again spoken to Bordeaux, who cheekily suggested taking Patrick Vieira in exchange, but he was unable to agree a price for the French international striker, and has set this weekend as a final deadline before turning elsewhere. "We have to buy a striker before 31 August, [the Champions' League deadline]" he said. "I'm really committed to that, because if Nwankwo Kanu goes to the Olympics, he will miss three Champions' League games." Kanu has yet to make a decision and admits he is torn between loyalty to Nigeria, with whom he won an Olympic gold medal at Atlanta in 1996, and his club.

Wenger added that doubts over whether the transfer system will survive in its present form is one of the reasons Arsenal are reluctant to pay the sums demanded for leading players. "The whole thing could collapse very soon, and then you have signed players that you can't sell anymore," he said.

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