On the face of it, Liverpool have the best chance of the four English clubs seeking progress in the European Champions’ Cup next week. They take a 3-1 lead back to Germany, but the away goal holds crucial significance and, wisely, no Scouser is counting chickens. Even more pessimistic should be supporters of Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester United, each rudely defeated in the first leg. Of the quartet, however, I reckon Chelsea is the best bet to get through. For one elementary reason: they have a calm (and calming) fellow between the sticks, in gloves and pullover, who combines defiance, daring, dagger-sharp reflexes, and a safe pair of hands. Lanky liabilities stalk the penalty area of the other three sides. Knockout competition can turn on a single stroke — either wondrous or woebegone, and it is beyond belief almost that such shrewd operators as Wenger and Ferguson have spent zillions on transfer fees for celeb strikers and indefatigable outfielders yet lumbered themselves with goalkeepers so prone to butterfingered aberration.
Liverpool’s hamfisted Dudek handed over a precious, gift-wrapped away goal at Anfield in the first leg, while Wenger and Ferguson were each in a fury of self-flagellation at their own utter doltishness in giving themselves a choice of goalkeeper each week determined not by standards of excellence but on which one might make the fewest gormless gaffes. Arsenal’s season has seen a continuous shuffle between the goalposts — and between cock-ups — of Spaniard Almunia and German Lehmann. United have galumphed the same dithering dance with Irishman Carroll and American Howard. The shot confidence of all four now matches their irresolution: cold feet, hot flushes, even (when it comes to cutting out centres) blue funk. What exactly were Wenger and Ferguson doing when Chelsea stole for comparative peanuts the polonecked paragon and prodigy, 22-year-old Petr Cech from French club Rennes.
Simply, no club will win the Champions’ Cup without a netminder with pre-eminent prescience, athleticism, audacity, faultless judgment and, crucially, unwavering concentration. For Britain, this European crusade was first mounted by ‘Busby’s Babes’ in the 1950s when Sir Matt set top-notchers Ray Wood and Harry Gregg to vie for the jersey. When United reached the final against Benfica in 1968, goalkeeper Alex Stepney won it for them, minutes from the end at 1-1, with his miraculous smother-block of Eusebio’s whizzbang — so United took it 4-1 in extra time. The year before in Lisbon, what might have gone on to happen in the first minute of the final had not Celtic’s midget-marvel Ronnie Simpson saved point-blank from Mazzola’s header? Bill Shankly saw Ray Clemence playing for Scunthorpe and noted the teenager kicked with his left foot and caught with his right hand — ‘the recipe for perfect balance’, glowed Shanks and signed Clem on to win three European Cup medals with Liverpool. For Nottingham Forest, the big, bonny brute Peter Shilton, an intimidating aura and probably the best keeper England have ever had, won two on the trot. Manager Brian Clough paid a fortune for him, aware the paramount priority for the bigtime was a goalkeeper — ‘a good goalie helps you win matches, but a great goalie wins you matches’.
Tell you what, if United still had the mighty Dane, Schmeichel, between the sticks next week, and Arsenal the nerveless bouncer, Seaman, neither would be sweating in the last-chance saloon.