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Saturday, Aug. 8, 2009

PREMIER REPORT

Goalkeeper Foster set for World Cup audition


LONDON — Carlo Ancelotti takes charge of Chelsea in a senior game for the first time on Sunday when it plays Manchester United in the Community Shield at Wembley.

Christopher Davies

The traditional curtain raiser to the Premier League season — champions vs. F.A. Cup winners — has an extra edge this year. Apart from the Ancelotti factor, there is Michael Owen back at Wembley in a United shirt, and goalkeeper Ben Foster starting what is a two-month audition to show he can perform at the highest level for club and then perhaps country.

Edwin van der Sar sustained a broken finger during the preseason and will not be able to play until October. Foster has made only 10 appearances for United in five years, winning two England caps.

At 26, Foster is hardly a rookie and spent two years on loan to Watford. The jury is still out on him but United rates him highly enough to have offered him a new four-year contract last month.

Foster's challenge is to dislodge two goalkeepers whose combined age is 77. It is one he has so far failed to overcome, perhaps through lack of opportunity which he now has.

United stalwart Van der Sar will be 39 in October, a milestone current England goalkeeper David James reached earlier this month.

United manager Sir Alex Ferguson said: "There's no doubt in my mind Foster will be England's goalkeeper (at the World Cup finals next year). There is nobody better."

There is also no doubt that to be England's goalkeeper in South Africa, Foster must play regularly for United this season.

England manager Fabio Capello would not admit it but going to the World Cup finals with a goalkeeper within diving distance of his 40th birthday is a high risk. The Calamity James moments, where a usually reliable goalkeeper makes a schoolboy error, are becoming more frequent.

James is still probably the best of a non-vintage English bunch — Foster is virtually untried while Scott Carson, Paul Robinson and Robert Green have not taken their chance at the international level when given it.

Capello would love for Foster to establish himself at United because anyone who is the first choice for the English champions is usually a regular in his national team.

"I don't want to just sit around and be No. 2," said Foster. "I want to play as many games as I can and if I get the chance I want to do as well as I can.

"I want to make sure the gaffer has a big decision. England and the World Cup finals are the goals for me and to get to South Africa I have to be playing for Manchester United."

Owen has similar targets. Eyebrows were raised when Ferguson signed Owen on a free transfer from Newcastle, where he endured four injury-plagued years. The joke at St. James' Park was that his full name should be Michael Owen injured.

But Owen's career record shows he has scored 201 goals in 413 matches, including 40 in 89 internationals. Owen knows where the goal is and if he stays fit he will help offset the loss of Cristiano Ronaldo and Carlos Tevez. At United, strikers are guaranteed good service.

Capello has largely ignored Owen — in fairness, he has had no option given the striker spent more time on the treatment table than the pitch at Newcastle — but apart from Wayne Rooney England has no other truly top-class striker.

Ferguson, whose mobile phone has "Scotland The Brave" as its ring tone, does not go out of his way to support England, but if Foster and Owen do the business for United this season the United manager can expect at least a Christmas card from Capello.

Surprisingly, as we went to press Ancelotti, the former AC Milan coach, has yet to sign a player since his arrival at Stamford Bridge despite a reported £100 million treasure chest available courtesy of billionaire owner Roman Abramovich.

Chelsea captain John Terry was not lured to Manchester City by its offer of a mega-contract. His reward is apparently a new improved four-year contract worth £151,000 a week at Stamford Bridge, which is £49,000 less than City was prepared to pay him.

The England captain said he never had any intention to leave Chelsea which begs the question why he took so long to announce his commitment to the Blues, allowing City to make two offers for him.

Terry and Didier Drogba, who penned a new two-year deal, are the only two "signings" under Ancelotti. Not long ago, Abramovich's financial clout virtually guaranteed that Chelsea got its man but times have changed.

Andrea Pirlo preferred to stay with Milan and Bayern Munich won't sell Franck Ribery. It would be a major surprise if Chelsea did not add to its squad by the time the transfer window closes at the end of the month, but it remains United's biggest challenge.

Even Ferguson admitted that.

"It has to be Chelsea as the main threat," he said. "Ancelotti will change the way they play. They will play the Milan way, which was good enough to bring them two European Cups. So why should he change?"

Christopher Davies was a longtime Premier League correspondent for the London Daily Telegraph.


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