Howard is our key man, says Ferguson

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The Independent Football

Sir Alex Ferguson is hailing the American goalkeeper Tim Howard as Manchester United's star performer during the first half of this season's Premiership campaign.

While Ruud van Nistelrooy has maintained his phenomenal scoring streak, it is Howard who has impressed Ferguson the most. A complete unknown in this country when he was snapped up from the Major League Soccer outfit New York Metros in the summer, Howard has shown no signs of being overawed by his new surroundings.

Brave in the air and an agile shot-stopper, almost from the moment he made his debut against Juventus on United's US tour in July the 24-year-old has looked a worthy replacement for the Champions' League-winning captain Peter Schmeichel.

"Tim Howard has been the star of the show this season," Ferguson said. "He is quick, alert, agile, courageous and has speed. It's all there for us to see. I thought I would have to leave him out for a bit in October, but it hasn't happened."

Having dropped Fabien Barthez from the first-team, Ferguson was expected to swoop for a big-name signing in the summer. Instead, he pursued the hunch of his goalkeeping coach, Tony Coton, who had heard good reports about Howard and insisted he was up to the demanding task of being United's No1.

The Spanish international Ricardo has also been allowed to leave Old Trafford on loan, leaving Roy Carroll as the goalkeeping understudy.

"Tim didn't have any of that experience, so there was bound to be a question mark over him," Ferguson said. "But Tony Coton was insistent and said, 'Once you see him there will be no questions'. That was a big statement, but he was right."

Ferguson may be tempted to give Howard a rest for Sunday's FA Cup tie at Aston Villa. But, injuries permitting, there is no doubt who will be between the posts when the season enters its crucial latter stages.

Van Nistelrooy, meanwhile, said yesterday that he is close to signing a new contract with Manchester United. "I do not expect any problems and probably the negotiations are going to be finished very soon," the 27-year-old Dutch international said. "I want to stay here for a long time, that is why I'm so happy that everything is going so well."