Manchester United's attempts to groom a replacement for Edwin van der Sar appear to have failed, with the club's goalkeeping coach Eric Steele admitting as the Dutchman signals this is his last season that they have three transfer targets in mind to replace him.
"We could do it internally, but we have looked at the best targets and we now have a nice one, two and three who we think can fill the job," Steele said. The leading candidates ahead of a decision of huge importance for manager Sir Alex Ferguson seem to be the first-choice Germany international Manuel Neuer and the Ajax and Netherlands keeper Maarten Stekelenburg. Atletico Madrid's David de Gea has been watched numerous times by Ferguson's brother, Martin, who scouts for him in Spain, though at the age of 20 and with only one full season behind him, the Spaniard seems third in line at best.
Ferguson had hoped that by the time the day of Van der Sar's retirement came – it was yesterday he told his management agency's website that "my age played no role, I am 40 years old but I still feel fit [yet] the decision came suddenly; it is now time to pay attention to my family" – United would have a successor in place. But Ben Foster never made it, Tomasz Kuszczak seemingly never will and Steele indicated that 26-year-old Anders Lindegaard's recent arrival from Aalesund in Denmark was designed only to "freshen the goalkeeping department."
It means that in a summer when Ferguson may undertake a major squad restructuring he must also avoid the mistake of 1999 when he was 24 hours too late in approaching Van der Sar in the aftermath of Peter Schmeichel's departure. The Dutchman, who was set on leaving Ajax, went to Juventus instead and United were plunged into six years of goalkeeping purgatory, trying nine keepers before finally securing Van der Sar from Fulham.
Though the cost of such of significant new recruit is hardly likely to be a major issue, both Neuer, who is at Schalke, and Stekelenburg will have only a year left on their contracts by this summer, which will make them cheaper acquisitions. Ferguson is highly likely to seek Van der Sar's counsel on the topic of his successor so Stekelenburg – who took over from him as national keeper – may have his vote. However, both have the experience Ferguson likes and both possess the northern European mentality which has worked so well for United.
Another contender is René Adler of Bayer Leverkusen, Neuer's deputy in the Germany squad, who is understood to have a clause written into his contract allowing his departure to Old Trafford if the opportunity arises. The CSKA Moscow goalkeeper and Russia No 1 Igor Akinfeev, whose contract runs until 2013, and Hugo Lloris, the France keeper at Lyons, are others who could possess the pedigree United require. Ferguson is known to appreciate Liverpool's Pepe Reina, who has a get-out clause in his contract for this summer, but United's fiercest rivals are unlikely to sell to them.
Who is United's next No 1?
The 6ft 5in Germany international, 24, has 15 caps and broke into the Schalke team aged 20. Impressed in Germany's run to last summer's World Cup semi-finals, including victory over England.
Standing at 6ft 8, the Dutchman replaced Van der Sar at international level and has 34 caps. Helped Netherlands reach World Cup final and has played 234 times for Ajax, winning one title.
David de Gea
Very much the third-choice option, the 20-year-old is similar to Peter Schmeichel with his vocal, animated style. Starred in Atletico's Europa League win last season. Yet to win a cap for Spain.