Looking after number one

I FOUND myself sitting next to a spy from Newcastle United at Old Trafford on Wednesday night.

He was there, he said with a grin, to see if AC Milan had any good players. He had his pitch diagram on his lap and diligently filled it with notes and symbols throughout the game, but from the way he oohed and aahed about the rampaging Kafu, the silky Kaka and the gutsy Gattuso, I suspect his final report consisted of just one word 'yes'.

Perhaps adding, 'and then some'.

While Graeme Souness ponders the fantasy football notion of buying up nearly all the Rossoneri, at least he can console himself with the thought that Dida would have a hard job dislodging Shay Given from his place between the Newcastle United posts.

Would that Alex Ferguson could feel equally confident about the world-class credentials of his own custodian ...

Not for the first time, Roy Carroll must have felt horribly alone as he spilt a straight-forward drive from Clarence Seedorf into the path of Hernan Crespo but, if it's any consolation, the truth is that the United keeper belongs to a small band of embattled brothers.

It's astonishing to think that three of the biggest clubs in English football continue to suffer such acute goalkeeping problems, as if the last line of defence was the last thing on anyone's mind when it came to assembling teams fit to challenge for domestic and European prizes. Manchester United have never found a satisfactory replacement for Peter Schmeichel, Arsenal have yet to find someone to emulate David Seaman at his peak and Liverpool must hark back to the admittedly eccentric Grobbelaar to locate a keeper with real presence between the posts (I said presence, not 'presents').

On the age-old principle that a bad workman always blames his tools, one suggestion as to why this seems to be a season of so many high-profile goalkeeping howlers is that the latest ball is lighter, more deceptive and thus harder to handle. Unfortunately, this doesn't explain how Chelsea can have not one but two top keepers, while the comparatively unsung likes of Edwin Van Der Sar, Brad Friedel and Shay Given's former international understudy Dean Kiely continue to perform to high standards for their respective clubs.

Playing in such an exposed position, even the best goalkeeper is bound to make the odd costly mistake think of the peerless Kahn in the last World Cup final but the problems besetting United, Liverpool and Arsenal this season suggest their Number One priority should be just that, the moment the next opportunity to buy proven talent, or blood a good young 'un, comes around.

Meantime, tempting though it might be to heap all the blame for United's Champions' League defeat on Carroll's gaffe, that would be not only to let the side's other failings on the night off the hook, but also to do a grave disservice to a masterful display on the part of the Milanese.

Sure, you can argue to some degree that Alex Ferguson got his tactics wrong and you can point to alarmingly below-par outings for Giggs, Rooney and Ronaldo, but the real story of Wednesday night was about how the visitors used vast experience, individual skill, fluent one-touch passing and a seamless blend of defence and attack to knock United right out of their stride.

Congratulations to Liverpool on bucking the trend, but with Chelsea and Arsenal also losing in Europe this week, the English game once more came off second-best when being forced to cope with something altogether more sophisticated than the often routine tests set by the Premiership.

Which is not to say that any one of the three is incapable of turning things around in the second leg but, watching Milan at close quarters, it was hard to escape the conclusion that, the European ban notwithstanding, one victory in over 20 years in the continent's most prestigious tournament remains a pretty accurate reflection of the ground the English game still has to make up.

On a sad subject, it would be remiss of this columnist and long-time fan not to pay tribute to the memory of the great American writer Hunter S Thompson, who took his own life last week at the age of 67.

The good Doctor may be best known for the 'gonzo' classic Fear & Loathing In Las Vegas, for his

hydra-headed political screeds and for his sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll lifestyle, but he was also a serious sports nut who began his career writing on sport for a US Air Force newspaper and ended it with an online column about a new style of golf he'd devised with the actor Bill Murray, in which points could be scored by downing balls in flight with a shotgun.

Doubtless, it's on its way to Sky Sports 3 as we speak.

Anyway, if you want to get a taste of the great man at his finest, check out The Great Shark Hunt (Picador), a superb collection of his work, which includes an hilarious and memorable encounter with Muhammad Ali.

This week's fantastically lurid tale about the AC Milan doctor and the fine massage he allegedly got into in a hotel in Manchester? If it hadn't happened, Hunter S Thompson would have made it up.

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