Football

The Debate: Why Peter Schmeichel is the greatest goalkeeper ever

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Peter Schmeichel in 1999

Image credit: Getty Images

ByBen Snowball
18/05/2020 at 14:43 | Updated 18/05/2020 at 14:59
@BenSnowball

Each week, four Eurosport writers make their case on a topical issue before having their arguments picked apart in our Friday podcast. This week: who is the greatest goalkeeper of all time? Ben Snowball is up first with the case for Peter Schmeichel…

The big goalie’s coming up… Peter Schmeichel is forward… Can he score another in Europe, he’s got one in Europe already… Beckham… In towards Schmeichel… It’s come for Dwight Yorke… Cleared… Giggs with the shot… Sheringham!

There are few greater sights in football than a goalkeeper galloping into the opposition penalty area, unshackled to attack a last-minute corner. It usually causes more harm than good.

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But on that night in Barcelona, a great Dane abandoned his post to instigate the greatest finish football had seen. He didn’t score, he probably didn’t even touch the ball, but without his presence there would be a different inscription next to 1999 on the Champions League trophy.

It was Schmeichel’s final involvement in a Manchester United shirt – a final reminder that a goalkeeper is much more than just saves and clean sheets.

While his reactions and agility excelled beyond his imposing 6’4” 16-stone frame, allowing him to both fill the goal and stay mobile around it, it was the attributes that were slightly harder to highlight that elevated him beyond his peers.

Chelsea's Mark Hughes and Gary Neville of Manchester United in a collision with United's Peter Schmeichel

Image credit: Getty Images

He had that rare ability to intimidate strikers and then back up his aura with world-class saves, a leader that happened to also be good with his hands. So when he charged forward for that final assault on Bayern Munich in Catalonia, there was no mistaking that he would clatter into an aerial challenge. Three seconds later, it was 1-1.

Perhaps only Toni Schumacher came close to rivalling Schmeichel for fear factor – and the German’s reputation first required a near-beheading of Patrick Battiston.

Schmeichel’s extended to his own defence, but he somehow managed to tread the line between giving them confidence and looming as executor should they mess up. You can have the best individual defenders in the world, but unless escorted by a respected and clear voice behind it can unravel quickly.

Without him, it’s unlikely United would have swept up domestically in the 1990s and eventually conquered Europe. The £505,000 ‘splashed’ on the Brondby talent helped yield five Premier League titles, three FA Cups, a League Cup and that European crown.

His success extended to the Danish team, who stunned a continent to win the 1992 European Championships. Schmeichel saved a penalty from Marco van Basten – whose sensational volley had won the tournament for the Dutch four years earlier – in the semi-finals. But it was in the final where he made the biggest impact. And not in the way anyone expected.

Such was his win-at-all-costs mentality, the game had to outlaw the pass back after Schmeichel and his defence exploited it in the final over Germany. Football bosses, having also seen it plague the 1990 World Cup, had finally had enough.

But even without gamesmanship, Schmeichel was unrivalled in his generation.

We can revisit the string of gravity-defying saves, his ability to claw the ball away from the bottom corner, his butterfly arms when facing a close-range shot, his Treble-defining penalty save against Dennis Bergkamp. But he was so much more than just a good goalkeeper.

He may have only made the PFA Team of the Year once, and disappeared to Sporting a shade too soon, but in those eight years at United he demanded perfection and offered it himself. When he arrived at Old Trafford, United were heading towards a 30-year league drought. When he left, they were indisputably the best team in England and perhaps Europe.

It’s why Peter Schmeichel is rightly regarded among the greats of the game – and why he’s arguably the best of all who have done it wearing gloves.

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