Around Europe: Like he did for Manchester United, Edwin van der Sar to the rescue again

In this week's Around Europe column, Ian Hawkey looks at the return of Dutch goalkeeper Edwin van der Sar for his local club.

Retirement was never an easy business for Edwin van der Sar, a footballer who at the very extended peak of his powers made the excellent seem routine, the outstanding look commonplace and who generally gave off an impression of serene calm.

But when he decided to put an end to his career as an international goalkeeper in 2008, the careful planning that characterised his work was interrupted by doubts.

The doubts on that retirement came from the Netherlands management, and specifically the Netherlands coach Bert van Marwijk during qualifying for the 2010 World Cup.

Van der Sar, who had won 128 caps for his country and was on his way to setting a Premier League record for successive clean sheets for Manchester United, had made it plain he was going to spend his late 30s concentrating only on a club career that had just yielded a second Uefa Champions League gold medal.

But Van Marwijk called and sounded worried.

The Netherlands had both their principal keepers, Maarten Stekelenburg and Henk Timmer, out injured. Could Edwin cover? Van der Sar answered the call for two matches.

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He kept a pair of clean sheets, and in the process established a new record number of caps for Netherlands, but, he told Van Marwijk, that was it. He really was retired from international football.

Still, he could later reflect he had played his part in a campaign that would end with the Dutch reaching the 2010 World Cup final.

Van der Sar’s elite club career had nearly three more years to run, two more Premier League titles with United to collect to double his tally, to add to the four Dutch Eredivisie medals he had won in the 1990s with Ajax before joining Juventus, then Fulham, then United.

He was 40 when he decided, definitively, to hang up his gloves. Definitively? Well, not quite.

His manager at the time, Alex Ferguson, divulged there had been some anxious second thoughts even from the cool, clear-minded Dutchman with the alert reactions and the wondrously broad wingspan.

“Edwin did have a wobble,” wrote Ferguson in his programme notes ahead of Van der Sar’s last Old Trafford appearance for Manchester United, in May 2011. “He told me he was thinking about changing his mind.”

Ferguson listened. The manager, too, had a wobble, explaining to a player who had been among his greatest allies for the previous six years that talks were advanced for United’s recruitment of David de Gea from Atletico Madrid.

“I told him to be quick about it [the possible change of plan],” Ferguson said.

Van der Sar was. Two days later he confirmed his retirement. His last match would be a Champions League final, his fifth, at Wembley, a 3-1 loss against Barcelona.

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Now, nearly five years on, the retirement is to be interrupted, though the scenario is less like the “wobble” ahead of his United farewell than the mercy-mission he fulfilled for the Netherlands back in 2008.

Van der Sar, 45 and now working as a coach in Holland, has answered a call from his old friends at VV Noordwijk, the amateur club where he began his career, who he last represented quarter of a century ago before moving, aged 20, to Ajax.

They have an injury crisis. They need a keeper for today’s match against Jodan Boys of Gouda in the fourth division of the Dutch football pyramid.

“We are assuming it is just for one game,” Noordwiijk director Peter Vink said, “but Edwin has agreed to help us out.”

Noordwiijk matches usually draw crowds of a few hundred, but the gate is likely to be boosted by the presence of one of the modern game’s genuine greats, as tall and lean as when he was a teenager.

The team should be boosted, too. Noordwijk, second in their division, let in four goals at Xerxes at Rotterdam last weekend.

PLAYER OF THE WEEK — JONAS (BENFICA)

Leadership of the Europe’s Golden Shoe has changed several times already in 2016. Still keeping pace with Ronaldo et al is the race’s dark horse.

Late developer

Jonas Goncalves Oliveira is enjoying the most prolific season of his career at a relatively mature age for a striker. He will turn 32 at the beginning of next month, by which time he will hope to have added to his remarkable 26 strikes from 25 outings in Portugal’s Primeira Liga so far. Monday’s fixture looks an opportunity. Tondela, bottom of the table, are the visitors.

Soaring Eagles

It has been a good month for Benfica. Last weekend Jonas spearheaded the attack in a 1-0 defeat of Sporting, Benfica leapfrogging their city rivals to top the league. They then travelled to Zenit Saint Petersburg to negotiate a place in the quarter-finals of the Uefa Champions League. Jonas’s late, headed goal had put them 1-0 in the dying seconds of the first leg and they finished 3-1 winners on aggregate.

Rich vein

That goal was one of 15 from Jonas, who is nimble and crafty rather than powerful, in a sequence of 12 games in which he was on the winning side on all but one, a defeat to Porto in what has been a tight battle at the summit of the Primeira Liga.

Valencia’s coup

Jonas’s previous best haul for a season was back in 2010, when, with Gremio of Porto Alegre in his native Brazil, he hit 23 goals in 33 matches. That earned him his move to Valencia. He won eight caps for Brazil, the last in 2012. He usually operates as a support striker, sometimes in wide positions and his relationship with the Mestalla crowd during lean periods could be fractious at times.

Quick off the mark

His Valencia highlights included a goal less than 11 seconds after the kick off against Bayer Leverkusen in the Champions League, in 2011, and a hat-trick within eight minutes of a match against Osasuna in his final season. He joined Benfica on a free transfer in 2014 and scored on his debut. He has barely looked back. His next Benfica goal will be his 60th.

GAME OF THE WEEK — BARCELONA v GETAFE

Barcelona defender Javier Mascherano will miss Saturday’s home game against Getafe after picking up his fifth booking of the season.

His presence is unlikely to deter the hosts though, with Thomas Vermaelen more than able to deputise, and Getafe probably concentrating all their efforts on halting Neymar, who is returning from suspension, Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez — an unenviable task. Since the turn of the year, the trio have racked up an eye-watering total of 30 Primera Liga goals in just 12 games.

Meanwhile, the visitors are plummeting down the table with seven defeats in their last eight games — leaving them with a flimsy one-point buffer over the relegation zone.

There is bad blood between the two clubs following the return fixture when Barca players coated the away dressing room with red paint on Halloween night. Getafe president Angel Torres stated: “No one from Barcelona called me to apologise for what happened. I will always defend my club and I will not allow anyone to walk all over us — however big Barcelona think they are.”

Real Madrid manager Zinedine Zidane conceded that his side will find it challenging to eat up the 12-point deficit to beat their rivals from Catalonia to the title.

Nevertheless, he insists that his side are still focused on the league and tomorrow’s game at lowly Las Palmas, despite progressing from their Uefa Champions League tie against Roma on Tuesday night. “Everyone dreams about doing something in the Champions League, and we are there to aim for that. We have a professional group. I know it’s difficult as we are in a difficult position, but for now it is about Sunday’s game,” he said.

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