Howard sets his sights on Schmeichel territory

Man United v Arsenal: United's impressive new keeper inspired by old hero as Gunners' rock refuses to crumble
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The Independent Football

Tim Howard was driving through Manchester last week when, out of the corner of his eye, Manchester United's new recruit spotted the club's most celebrated goalkeeper. No, not Fabien Barthez, the French World Cup, European Championship and Champions' League winner, but Peter Schmeichel, the Great Dane whose shadow still looms large over the Old Trafford penalty boxes.

"I grew up idolising Peter," Howard said. "I'm mesmerised by him. He's the greatest keeper of all time, so when I saw him just walking along the street, I was desperate to stop my car right there and then, jump out and go over to talk to him."

Unfortunately for Howard, traffic regulations demanded that he had to drive on. "It was really annoying, but I hope we'll meet soon. I used to study videos of him when I was growing up, so I'd love to talk to him about keeping."

Howard may be composed during matches, but he speaks with the exuberance of an American high-school kid. "Yeah, well, it's all a little bit new," he saidafter United's 5-0 destruction of Panathinaikos in their opening match of the Champions' League. "I'm trying real hard to handle everything well, because at Man United, every shot and every game brings a lot of pressure. But that's OK, because it will help me mature quicker."

Howard has certainly been thrown in at the deep end. Signed in July from New York/New Jersey Metrostars, he thought he was coming to act as cover for the most garlanded keeper of his generation. Instead, he has found himself ahead of Barthez in the pecking order. "Hey, look, it has been a bit of a shock," admitted the 24-year-old, who benefits from dual nationality through his Hungarian mother, Esther, and thus avoided any work-permit troubles. "When I joined the club, I obviously hoped that I would be able to impose myself at some point. I certainly didn't expect anything when I arrived, but I've got the position right now and I've got to be thankful for that."

One wonders whether the manager promised the American the No 1 spot when he signed in the summer? "No, no," Howard insisted, "I've been handed the jersey for whatever reason, and now I have to make sure I don't give it back. If I start thinking I'm settled, then I'm in trouble. The standards here are such that if you drop a little, you're out."

Sir Alex Ferguson said he "had to give the new man a chance" when he signed him, and insisted he felt genuine compassion for Barthez. "Fabien's bound to be disappointed, but when a guy like Tim comes along and performs the way he's done, it's straightforward."

One suspects, too, that the Scot's trust in Howard has to do with Schmeichel. "Tim has similarities with Peter in terms of size, speed and quickness of reflexes," Ferguson admitted. "And, like Peter, he seems to have a very good presence."

Unlike Barthez, who tends to let his defenders get on with their job, Howard is more in the boisterous Schmeichel mould. "I'm an aggressive keeper," said the man who has been a minor sufferer of Tourette's syndrome since the age of 10. "I'm in control, though, and I think that's what the players want."

Rio Ferdinand concurred. "It's good to have a keeper shouting," the centre-back said. "Tim likes to yell a lot, and we encourage him to do that."

Howard and Barthez may be totally different personalities, but they are jostling for the same prize. "Fabien is a professional and a gentleman," the American said of the entente cordiale that ensures the pair work together on a daily basis. "It's a tough situation, because he's done well here and feels he deserves to be in the team. But he's being very mature about it and treating me well. We're training great together, so let's hope it continues."

Events today will go a long way towards deciding the outcome of the battle of the keepers. Should Manchester United beat Arsenal in style, Howard will almost certainly make the shirt his own for a while. However, defeat at Old Trafford, or a slip by the newcomer, could see a return of the bald Frenchman. The pressure is on the American's imposing 17-stone frame. "It's going to be tough," said Howard. "I haven't been in English football for very long, but I know about Arsenal. I know they're very, very good."

Howard is also aware that Thierry Henry is a striker who can "give keepers nightmares", but insists that he will not be obsessive about the Frenchman before the game. "He's definitely one we've got to watch," said Howard, who made several wonderful penalty saves during the Charity Shield win against Arsenal, "because of his pace and intensity, but I mustn't think about him too much, otherwise I'll start over-analysing things and be put off my own game."

Even with Barthez breathing down his neck, it is hard to see Howard taking his eagle eyes off the ball.

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