Carson and Dudek united in rivalry

Champions' League: Teenage keeper was hero and villain, but is supported by the man he replaced
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The Independent Football

They are, at most clubs, the best of friends and the best of enemies, the two goalkeepers fighting for a single position. Every day, they train with and encourage each other, while knowing deep down that the better the deadly rival does, the better his chances of either holding on to or seizing the one available place in the team.

Should the first choice, on the other hand, suffer an injury or make a gaffe, commiseration is almost bound to sound insincere, for opportunity is now knocking. "Hope it's nothing minor" might be the most honest observation.

Liverpool, where goalkeepers once died of old age waiting for Ray Clemence and then Bruce Grobbelaar to give up the jersey, are no exception. Indeed, their situation is more complicated than most, in having three front-liners.

At present, the injury-prone Chris Kirkland, with no more than 25 League appearances to his name in four seasons, is absent again, so just before the transfer deadline Scott Carson, 19, who has superceded him as the most promising young English No 1, was snatched from Leeds United as understudy to the occasionally suspect Jerzy Dudek.

Just as well, it transpired, when the latter returned from Poland's World Cup games against Azerbaijan and Northern Ireland with a hamstring strain and was forced to sit out last Saturday's critical Premiership win over Bolton. The 6ft 3in Carson kept a clean sheet, thanks to one excellent save from Jay-Jay Okocha and a couple of headed goal-line clearances by Steve Finnan; and, continuing a learning curve that was not so much steep as sheer, was then called upon for Tuesday's emotionally overloaded Champions' League epic against Juventus.

The Kop, standing en masse behind him (an appeal to all spectators to remain seated was one of the evening's more optimistic requests), roared at another fine low save, from Alessandro Del Piero, then groaned as the teenager made a mess of a header by Fabio Cannavaro, offering Juventus an escape route from a serious plight in Wednesday's home leg.

"It was a terrible error," Dudek stormed, "and showed I should be back in the team." No he didn't, of course. What the quietly spoken Pole actually said was: "Things like that happen to goalkeepers always. When you sit on the bench, you don't see it properly, but I think he was a bit unlucky. I always try to help other keepers. We always help each other.

"It was frustrating not to be playing. I just came back from the national team with a hamstring injury. We did the scan and they said normally I would be out for two to three weeks. But I have no time to be out for two to three weeks, so I have been trying to push for the last four days and it didn't work. Every single player wants to play in a game like this, and just before we had our warm-up in the morning before the game, the leg was sore.

"I didn't want to put Scotty under pressure. He must know that he will play and let him concentrate on the game, so I agreed with the coach in the morning that I would not play because of my injury."

Dudek was left on the bench again against Manchester City yesterday, but a difficult decision now faces Rafael Benitez and his goalkeeping coach, Jose Ochotorena, before Wednesday night. Who would be the greater liability with a place in the European Cup semi-final at stake? An experienced goalkeeper less than 100 per cent fit, or a 19-year-old who has made high-profile errors in the first leg and his most recent international appearance (costing England Under-21s victory over Germany in the last minute)?

For someone well aware of how the following morning's headlines would read - "Carson's calamity takes edge off Liverpool's triumph" and so on - the calamitous one nevertheless sounded some way off suicidal when he emerged from the dressing room and drug-testing late last Tuesday.

"I'm feeling good," he insisted. "It's nice to get your first Champions' League game out of the way. I've only played a handful of games, so to play a quarter-final against Juventus, you can't ask for much more than that. I didn't know for certain that I was playing until an hour before kick-off, but I had an idea because Jerzy said he was still struggling with his groin. I was more nervous before Bolton on Saturday, because now I know I can play at Anfield; it was just another game really."

It would be stretching a point, even for a carefree teenager, to describe this week's return match in those terms - another reason why Dudek, if fit, would be the safer bet.

The whole occasion would be suffused with tension even if the long shadow of Heysel was not still hanging over it. When a hundred or more Juventus fans in the front rows at Anfield pointedly turned their back on the home supporters' gesture of friendship and reconciliation, they made it clear that resentment still burns in Turin 20 years on, just as it does on Merseyside over the Hillsborough disaster; and the number of like-minded supporters in the crowd this week will have swollen immeasurably.

Italian officials, more appre-ciative of Liverpool's efforts last week than some of the rank and file, will do their best to reciprocate, but it is not surprising in the circumstances that the English club have for once struggled to sell their full allocation of tickets.

Unfortunately, probably the most provocative thing Liverpool could do is to hold on to their 2-1 lead, the fruit of a first-half performance that the inspirational Steven Gerrard described as the best of the season. The prospective return of Xabi Alonso to take some of the weight from Gerrard's shoulders and further inspire his compatriot Luis Garcia makes that a slightly more realistic possibility, for better or worse.

An awful lot will also depend on whoever is chosen to stand tall between the posts.