Goalkeeper Tom Heaton has paid opposite number Thibaut Courtois the ultimate compliment by comparing him to influential mentor Edwin van der Sar.
Heaton’s only appearances for Manchester United came in Stan Ternent’s testimonial in 2004, where he replaced Luke Steele at Turf Moor, and in the UEFA Celebration Match against Macello Lippi’s Europe XI at Old Trafford, replacing Tomasz Kuszczak as a half-time substitute.
However, the 28-year-old developed under the guidance of the Dutchman over a five-year spell following his £5m move from Fulham in the summer of 2005. And he believes that Belgium international keeper Courtois could be the closest product that the Premier League has to the two-time UEFA Champions League winner.
“He certainly seems that way to me,” said Heaton. “For me van der Sar’s composure was his biggest asset. He was an incredible goalkeeper but his calmness impacted on the team in big games. That air of composure was with him every day; it wasn’t just something he turned on on matchdays.
“That didn’t change from a pre-season friendly to a Champions League final. He was the best I’ve ever seen. He was fantastic with me when I worked closely with him on a day-to-day basis.”
There’s no shortage of world class goalkeepers at Stamford Bridge. Courtois has 11 clean sheets in all competitions for the Blues, plus another couple at international level, while Petr Cech has seven in 13 appearances.
“They are two incredible goalkeepers,” said Heaton. “With Cech being in the Premier League for a long time I’ve certainly looked at him and how he’s gone about it. I think he’s been absolutely outstanding. Courtois has hit the ground running this year and he’s also been outstanding. There’s a great competition for places there.
“It can be very tough. I’m sure it’s a difficult situation because they’ve both shown this year in their performances that they’re right at it and they’ve benefited the club on a whole.”
When questioned about modelling his style on other goalkeepers, Heaton added: “I try to have an open mind. We’ve got different physiques and we have different ways of playing the game. There’s a limit to that. I certainly look at the best bits and things that I can add in to my game across the board.
“There’s a few different styles which is great. I feel I’m still learning and trying to get better every day. I look at things I can take forward in to my game. I have no favourites as such because we’re blessed with some fantastic goalkeepers. There’s Lloris, De Gea, Courtois, Cech, Joe Hart - you could go on for most of the Premier League really. Both goalkeepers at Chelsea are outstanding.”
Jose Mourinho’s men were imperious under the Turf Moor lights in August with Diego Costa, Andre Schurrle and Branislav Ivanovic cancelling out Scott Arfield’s opener in a 3-1 win.
“The Chelsea game was great and certainly an eye opener for the rest of the season,” Heaton said. “I thought they were outstanding on the night. Physically they were excellent as was the application and attitude. I was really impressed with them on the night and they’re probably the best we’ve played so far.
“One of the goals was certainly the best I’ve come across with Fabregas’ ball in to Schurrle. You only have to look through the squad list to see how good they are. As a team they’re even better. They are one of the best in the world.”
However, Heaton isn’t daunted by the fixture with the Blues who haven’t lost in the league on home soil in 10 months. “We’re looking forward to it,” he said. “I think we can take a lot of positives from the United performance last week, though we were frustrated not to take anything from the game.
“I thought Chelsea were excellent in their European game but we already know that they are a top side. We’ll go about the game in the right manner and look to upset them. If you come away with anything from Stamford Bridge it can give you that lift and momentum you need going in to the last 12 games.
“It’s the Premier League - every team we play against there’s top players. This is where I want to be so in honesty I’ll sleep soundly. It’s an excitement and a great challenge that we want to be competing in.”