Keeping it clean

Thursday 13 December 2001

Should Edwin van der Sar have the time or the inclination, he could probably write a self-help book for discarded football stars trying to get their careers back on track.

Four months ago, van der Sar was the bitter, big-name goalkeeper who had been unceremoniously dumped by Juventus after two seasons and left to train on his own. Replaced by £32 million signing Gianluigi Buffon at the Stadio delle Alpi, he was worried about losing his position as Holland's number one.

But today the Dutchman is taking the credit for denying Michael Owen his 100th goal for Liverpool and being hailed one again as one of the world's best keepers.

Van der Sar's performance in stopping the England striker and his team-mates at Anfield showed why Fulham paid Juventus £7m for him in August when he already had a decent goalkeeper in Maik Taylor.

The 31-year-old used all his height, agility and experience to produce a string of top-class saves. Owen and Steven Gerrard repeatedly tested him with a range of goalscoring attempts including a lobbed shot, headers and one-on-one encounters but they could not get the better of him.

The woodwork may have come to his rescue twice but van der Sar deservedly became the first goalkeeper to keep a clean-sheet against Liverpool on their own ground this season.

"He is a world-class goalkeeper who makes saves at crucial times and he gives so much confidence to the defence," Fulham team-mate John Collins said. "Brilliant," was the description used by captain Andy Melville.

Juventus thought otherwise in the summer and decided to sell van der Sar after he made a mistake in a game against fierce rivals Roma.

But he has moved on since then and the advantages of joining Fulham would have to be the main theme in any book he wrote.

He previous clubs, Juventus and Ajax, were bigger organisations, where he was one star among many. Signing for manager Jean Tigana meant his profile would be one of the highest. It also ensured he would be the undisputed No1 while playing in a good League in a big city where he already spoke the language.

The Fulham manager's obvious desire for him to join was also a factor and the pair have managed a very successful marriage of convenience.

Tigana wanted van der Sar largely to demonstrate Fulham's ambitions but he also knew that acquiring a defensive bedrock of his quality would be a key to achieving Premiership safety.

After last night's game, the Frenchman said: "That did not show how well we have adapted because we were lucky. The performance was not too bad and one point was good for us. They hit the post and we had a good van der Sar."

He was right about the goalkeeper but Fulham's play did demonstrate their progress since drawing 0-0 at Anfield in Worthington Cup before going out 3-0 in extra-time last year.

Then they were tentative and showed little ambition. Last night they showed more confidence, passed with more purpose and Louis Saha and Steed Malbranque had chances to steal all three points.

Tigana got his tactics right and his players were not sucked in by Liverpool's counter-attacking style. The increasingly vocal frustration of the home supporters at their own team's lack of forward motion was a good indication of that.

Van der Sar said: "Everyone is playing for their place and things have been going well. From a defensive point of view I am very happy with the progress we have made."

He should be. Fulham are sitting comfortably in the top half of the table. They have kept eight clean sheets so far this season and have not been beaten in their last eight Premiership games.

That has been achieved by keeping the same back four who finished as automatic choices in the First Division last season. Steve Finnan, Rufus Brevett and Andy Melville have all improved with results this term and Alain Goma's recent top-flight experience with Newcastle has shown.

Tigana said: "It is difficult in the first year at this level because you have less space against the big teams. It is a new level for the strikers and the rest of the team.

"But it is good for the confidence that we have extended our unbeaten run against Liverpool. It is a relief every time we take the points but now we have two important away games."

They visit Tottenham on Saturday and then go to Middlesbrough a week later and the Frenchman thinks good results against them would really have his players believing in themselves.

After four months at Fulham, it is not something he should have to worry about with van der Sar.