I HAVE a friend who is a Manchester United fan. Whenever he watches a City game on TV these days, he invariably finds himself asking: “Why didn’t we sign Shay Given?”
It’s a question he’s been asking a lot in recent weeks, with Ben Foster making a couple of high-profile howlers and Edwin van der Sar passing his 39th birthday, while Given has turned in a string of excellent performances, topped by a penalty save in Sunday’s 0-0 draw at Birmingham.
Then again, any United fan wanting to write a history of the club over the last 10 years would have a strong case for calling it: Goalkeepers We Should Have Signed.
Ferguson himself is on record as stating that he should have snapped up Van der Sar when Peter Schmeichel left Old Trafford in 1999. I have another United-supporting friend who repeatedly told me that the United manager should have gone for Turkey’s Rustu Recber after the 2002 World Cup. (Although he went quiet on that one a few years ago.)
Van der Sar isn’t going to carry on forever – and he may even call it a day this summer. Inevitably, then, there has been speculation as to who might be his long-term successor as United’s first-choice goalkeeper. And quite a few people reckon it might be Igor Akinfeev of CSKA Moscow.
Should we read anything, then, into the fact that Ferguson chose to compliment Akinfeev in the match programme ahead of United’s Champions League meeting with CSKA at Old Trafford tonight?
When discussing the CSKA team, Freguson focused most of his attention on Serbian midfielder Milos Krasic – wisely, as it turned out. But he followed that up with a few words on Akinfeev: “Watch out tonight as well for CSKA’s goalkeeper Igor Akinfeev, impressive in the first leg, too – he is a very good player.”
At 23, Akinfeev has already played at two European Championship finals, and will be going to next summer’s World Cup too if Russia can see off Slovenia in a two-legged play-off later this month. Having impressed Ferguson when United beat CSKA 1-0 at the Luzhniki Stadium two weeks ago, Akinfeev had another big chance to impress tonight on his first visit to Old Trafford.
Against a United side which seemed to have been picked with half-an-eye on Sunday’s trip to Premier League leaders Chelsea, Akinfeev proved beyond doubt that he is an excellent shot-stopper. He didn’t have too much to do in the first half as United laboured. But once Wayne Rooney and Patrice Evra came on to help try to pull round a 3-1 deficit, the Russian keeper frustrated them on several occasions.
Whether he’s commanding in the air, it was hard to tell on tonight’s evidence. CSKA defended so deeply on crosses that Akinfeev rarely had to claim anything under any sort of pressure.
The keeper remained rooted to his line as Paul Scholes headed in a Gary Neville free-kick to pull United back to 3-2 with six minutes remaining – but that was more down to the quality of the ball in and the huge number of players crammed along the six-yard line than any fault on Akinfeev’s part. It would be interesting to see how the young goalkeeper coped with an aerial bombardment – because for all United’s late pressure tonight, that was something they didn’t manage.
It was a strange night. United had no Ferdinand, no Vidic, no Anderson, no Carrick and no Berbatov. But Rooney, surprisingly, was on the bench, fresh from setting the world the challenge of analysing the various meanings of the name Kai. (So far, I have learned that it means ‘keeper of the keys’ in Celtic, ‘happiness’ in Chinese and ‘ocean’ in Hawaiian, in addition to discovering that actress Parminder Nagra, who starred in Bend It Like Beckham, also has a child called Kai.)
CSKA were 2-1 up at the break, courtesy of a brilliantly-taken goal from teenage midfielder Alan Dzagoev, who scored from what seemed an impossible angle, and then a very untidy one from that man Krasic, who almost overran the ball as United’s sluggish defence appealed in vain for offside. Michael Owen equalised in between, but looked like the kind of striker who needs six chances to score one.
Ferguson’s defence did not cover themselves in glory. They were dozing again as defender Vasili Berezutsky headed in unmarked at the far post to make it 3-1 shortly after the break. And United weren’t creating enough to look like getting back into it.
A couple of years ago, during a short trip to Dublin, I found myself watching United narrowly beat Roma in a Champions League game on Irish TV station RTE. If you’ve ever watched RTE’s Champions League coverage, you’ll know that the pundits don’t hold back. That night, Eamonn Dunphy was scathing about Nani. “He’s not a player,” Dunphy claimed after watching the Portuguese winger spend 45 minutes doing little of any consequence.
Dunphy is controversial. And sometimes, it seems to my ears that he is being controversial for the sake of it. But a lot of United fans are starting to think he may be right about Nani. Tonight, he created far too little. And it was only when he went off after an hour – with Rooney coming on in his place – that United started to put serious pressure on Akinfeev.
After that, the keeper stood up to everything bar Scholes’ header and a heavily-deflected shot from Antonio Valencia deep into stoppage time as United salvaged a 3-3 draw in a cracking finish.
In the seconds that remained, card-happy referee Olegario Benquerenca managed to send off Deividas Sembaras after the CSKA defender picked up a second yellow card over a clash with lively United substitute Gabriel Obertan.
United fans went home happy, as a draw secured a place in the Champions League knockout stages. Has their manager has found a long-term replacement for Van der Sar? Ferguson denied it afterwards. But he might be worth a try.