Sir Alex Ferguson always expected veteran goalkeeper Edwin van der Sar to retire at the end of the season.
The Manchester United boss confirmed yesterday that he was planning for the 40-year-old Dutchman's exit in the summer.
Denmark international Anders Lindegaard has already been brought in from Aalesunds and is now training with the Old Trafford outfit, even though he will not be eligible to play until the FA Cup tie with Liverpool on January 9.
And the chances are a bigger name will be recruited for the start of next season too as Ferguson bids to ensure his side do not suffer in the same way they did when he failed to secure Van der Sar's services to replace Peter Schmeichel in 1999.
"I did expect this to be Edwin's final season," said Ferguson. "To still be playing at this level at 40 is amazing.
"You can only do it if you have the structure and the mind to be able to programme yourself and train the way he does. It is phenomenal. I am very lucky to have had both Van der Sar and Schmeichel.
"But we have learnt from when we tried to replace Peter. I should have signed Van der Sar after Schmeichel but I made a mistake. Now we know where we are going."
Van der Sar will take his customary place in goal on Boxing Day against Sunderland, who have taken points off all the title contenders this term.
A home win would continue a decent period of results for United, who retained top spot over Christmas thanks to Manchester City's failure to overcome Everton on Monday and could open a two-point lead still further given Arsenal and Chelsea are not in action until Monday.
Ferguson will wait until after the January 4 meeting with Stoke before assessing the title race.
However, he does feel the number of realistic candidates is reducing.
"I don't think there will be anyone outside ourselves, Chelsea or Arsenal," he said. "Those three will certainly be there.
"I know Harry (Redknapp) is talking up his chances at Tottenham but they are involved in the Champions League, which is a new thing for them.
"If they get through the next stage it is not easy to manage European competition at that level and doing your league programme, plus FA Cup ties. Usually experience gets you through.
"Manchester City have got a chance of course. But they will also have the Europa League that will make it difficult.
"Maybe they, and Harry too, could buy in January because it is very difficult to manage both."
Ferguson expects Nemanja Vidic and Anderson to be available despite becoming victims of a flu virus that has swept through the club's Carrington training ground.
Both men would have missed Sunday's trip to Chelsea had it not been postponed but have now returned to training, along with Michael Carrick and Nani, who have also been affected.
Paul Scholes (groin) and John O'Shea (calf) are both out.
Sunderland defender Phil Bardsley will not allow himself to be carried away as he sets his sights on Europe.
The 25-year-old full-back returns to Old Trafford with the Black Cats sitting in sixth place in the Barclays Premier League table and having established themselves as genuine challengers for European qualification during an impressive first half of the campaign.
Manager Steve Bruce has been at pains to dampen down expectation in recent weeks, but a similarly solid return from the remaining 20 games would leave them with a big chance.
Bardsley, who played in the UEFA Cup with Rangers, said: "Obviously Europe is a tough place to get into in this league because there are so many good teams.
"But if we keep improving and keep picking points up along the way and continue our own form, then hopefully we can get in there. But all the lads have their feet on the ground. We know what is ahead.
"We have got a tough second half of the season and this Christmas period now will show where teams are going to lie. We will look forward to it and hopefully pick as many points up as possible."
As if to illustrate Bardsley's point, Sunderland will head for Old Trafford for what would have been a testing fixture anyway without seven first-team absentees.
Danny Welbeck is ineligible under the terms of his loan agreement with United, while skipper Lee Cattermole is suspended and John Mensah, Titus Bramble, Michael Turner, David Meyler and Fraizer Campbell are all injured.
Bardsley said: "Of course it is going to be tough going there, but it's up to other players now to step in and try to stake their claim in the team. I am sure the lads the manager brings in will do that."
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