Manchester United's attempts to groom a replacement for Edwin van der Sar appear to have failed, with the club's goalkeeping coach Eric Steele admitting as the Dutchman signals this is his last season that they have three transfer targets in mind to replace him.
“We could do it internally, but we have looked at the best targets and we now have a nice one, two and three who we think can fill the job,” Steele said.
The leading candidates ahead of a decision of huge importance for manager Sir Alex Ferguson seem to be the first-choice Germany international Manuel Neuer and the Ajax and Netherlands keeper Maarten Stekelenburg.
Atletico Madrid's David de Gea has been watched numerous times by Ferguson's brother, Martin, who scouts for him in Spain, though at the age of 20 and with only one full season behind him, the Spaniard seems third in line at best.
Ferguson had hoped that by the time the day of Van der Sar's retirement came — it was yesterday he told his management agency's website that “my age played no role, I am 40 years old but I still feel fit [yet] the decision came suddenly; it is now time to pay attention to my family” — United would have a successor in place.
But Ben Foster never made it, Tomasz Kuszczak seemingly never will and Steele indicated that 26-year-old Anders Lindegaard's recent arrival from Denmark was designed only to “freshen the goalkeeping department.”
It means that in a summer when Ferguson may undertake a major squad restructuring he must also avoid the mistake of 1999 when he was 24 hours too late in approaching Van der Sar in the aftermath of Peter Schmeichel's departure.
The Dutchman, who was set on leaving Ajax, went to Juventus instead and United were plunged into six years of goalkeeping purgatory, trying nine keepers before finally securing Van der Sar from Fulham.
Though the cost of such of significant new recruit is hardly likely to be a major issue, both Neuer, who is at Schalke, and Stekelenburg will have only a year left on their contracts by this summer, which will make them cheaper acquisitions.
Ferguson is highly likely to seek Van der Sar's counsel on the topic of his successor so Stekelenburg — who took over from him as national keeper — may have his vote. However, both have the experience Ferguson likes and both possess the northern European mentality which has worked so well for United.
Another contender is Rene Adler of Bayer Leverkusen, Neuer's deputy in the Germany squad, who is understood to have a clause written into his contract allowing his departure to Old Trafford if the opportunity arises.
The CSKA Moscow goalkeeper and Russia No 1 Igor Akinfeev, whose contract runs until 2013, and Hugo Lloris, the France keeper at Lyons, are others who could possess the pedigree United require. Ferguson is known to appreciate Liverpool's Pepe Reina, who has a get-out clause in his contract for this summer, but United's fiercest rivals are unlikely to sell to them.
Who will be United's next No. 1?
Edwin van der Sar's decision to retire at the end of the season presents Sir Alex Ferguson with a major decision to make this summer.
Ever since Peter Schmeichel proved such a pivotal part of the all-conquering team of the 90s, wearing the Manchester United number one shirt has come with huge gloves to fill.
Arguably, it was not until Van der Sar's arrival from Fulham in 2005 that Ferguson found a worthy replacement for Schmeichel, but the Dutchman was 34 then and although his performances have been of a consistently high standard, age has now caught up with him.
Ferguson's judgment in the transfer window has been mostly unerring, but goalkeeper is the one position that the Scot has really struggled with.
Fabien Barthez was certainly talented, but his decision making could be erratic to say the least, while the likes of Massimo Taibi, Andy Goram, Roy Carroll, Raimond van der Gouw and Ricardo Lopez were hardly runaway successes.
All of which means Ferguson will be determined to get the right man this time. Here, we look at some of the leading candidates.
MAARTEN STEKELENBURG: Van der Sar's replacement with Holland and Ajax would be a fitting successor in that respect. A very solid keeper who at 28 should be at the peak of his career.
MANUEL NEUER: The Schalke keeper is only 24 but already has plenty of big-match experience in domestic and European football as well as with Germany, for whom he performed brilliantly at the World Cup. Modelled himself on Jens Lehmann.
DAVID DE GEA: The 20-year-old Atletico Madrid keeper is already attracting the attentions of Europe's big clubs. Ferguson has largely been reluctant to put his faith in young keepers, but this may be his best chance to land De Gea.
HUGO LLORIS: France's number one could well fit the bill having gained plenty of Champions League experience with Lyon. The Ligue 1 giants, though, are likely to demand a large fee for the former Nice stopper.
IGOR AKINFEEV: Akinfeev has long been linked with a move to United but may have been surpassed in Ferguson's wishlist by the names above. The 24-year-old has been first choice for CSKA Moscow since 2003.
ANDERS LINDEGAARD: It is easy to forget Ferguson has already recruited a goalkeeper this season having signed Dane Lindegaard from Norwegian side Aalesund in November. The 26-year-old seems unlikely to be first choice, though, especially after his compatriot Schmeichel said he was not ready to be a Premier League regular for United.