Once more Sir Alex Ferguson faces up to the task of replacing a great goalkeeper and the Manchester United manager would hope that filling Edwin van der Sar's gloves proves simpler than finding the new Peter Schmeichel was.
Ferguson expects Van der Sar to confirm that, at the age of 40, this season – his sixth at Old Trafford – will be his last. The Dutchman has always said that there will come a time when he will take his young family back to the Netherlands; and that time will come in the summer. There has been no formal announcement but yesterday Ferguson said: "We are planning for this to be possibly his last season."
Had Ferguson signed Van der Sar in the wake of Schmeichel's decision to quit United following the 1999 European Cup final, the transition from great goalkeeper to great goalkeeper would have been a silken one. Instead, Van der Sar went from Ajax to Juventus and Ferguson found himself with Massimo Taibi and Mark Bosnich.
The latter was occasionally brilliant but frequently overweight while Taibi let in 11 goals in four appearances and was dismissed by Ferguson as "not a Manchester United player". "I learnt lessons from that," he said yesterday. "I should have signed Van der Sar after Schmeichel. I made a mistake but now we think we know where we are going."
Van der Sar may be six feet six inches tall but the metaphorical space he fills is far bigger. Of his recent understudies, Tomasz Kuszczak has not made an overwhelming case that he is a Manchester United player. Ben Amos shaped up well against Valencia earlier this month but is still only 20 while Ben Foster, described by Ferguson last season as the best current English goalkeeper, is now at Birmingham. Anders Lindegaard, the 26-year-old Dane, signed from the Norwegian club Aalesund last month will not be eligible to play until 4 January.
When Lindegaard arrives, Ferguson expects a three-cornered fight between United, Arsenal and Chelsea for the title, although he will not rule out Manchester City. However, he believes the demands of winning the Europa League may weigh on Roberto Mancini's squad, just as a first tilt at the Champions League may derail Tottenham Hotspur.
"I know Harry Redknapp is talking up his chances very well at Tottenham but they are involved in the Champions League and that is a new thing for them," said Ferguson, whose first experience of Europe's leading competition in its current format in 1994-95 contributed to a rare trophyless season at Old Trafford. "Particularly if they get through this next stage [where they face Milan] it is not easy to manage European competition at that level and then do the league programme and FA Cup ties. It is very difficult and usually only your experience gets you through."
But for the postponement of last Sunday's encounter with Chelsea at Stamford Bridge, Manchester United may already have opened up a decisive lead in the Premier League. Ferguson does not expect the Chelsea match to be replayed until "after March at least" and there remains a possibility that a league wanting to milk more drama from the competition will reschedule it for the penultimate game of the season.
"We have had to look at the fixtures in the past few days and it's quite a difficult one," said Ferguson. "Because you have FA Cup dates, it is difficult to know where to place it. It certainly seems like it is not going to be played until after March at least. Whether we lost out by not playing the game is hard to say. Obviously, Chelsea are in a bit of bad form and they were probably quite happy to get the game called off."
It may have been close to Christmas, with mince pies and wine served at the club's training ground at Carrington, and Ferguson may have contributed to David Beckham's lifetime achievement award at the Sports Personality of the Year ceremony but he was not about to offer him his job back at Manchester United, the only Premier League club Beckham said he wanted to play for. "I don't think I have ever signed a player that old," he said, letting Beckham down gently.
United's next No 1: Who is Anders Lindegaard?
He is 26 and Danish but built more like the gangly Edwin van der Sar than the bear-like frame of Peter Schmeichel, who doubted Lindegaard had what it took to be a No 1 at Old Trafford: "We are talking Manchester United here," Schmeichel said. "The position has to be filled by someone of the very, very highest quality who also has the right experience."
Lindegaard was brought up in Odense, at the club that produced Thomas Sorensen, but after former United keeper Roy Carroll joined the club last year he moved to Aalesund in Norway. There Lindegaard played in a stadium seven times smaller than Old Trafford but helped the club win the Norwegian Cup for the first time. At £3.5m he cost United more than Van der Sar and Schmeichel combined.