With nothing between this season’s relegation candidates, could the goalkeepers decide it?

After Birmingham’s narrow, ultimately edgy win against Bolton Wanderers, their manager, Alex McLeish, was quick to sing the praises of his goalkeeper Ben Foster. The England international undoubtedly ensured the three points were secure, and with points at the bottom being so hard to come by, such displays between the sticks could decide this season’s survivors.

Just as the importance of a top quality No 1 for title challengers cannot be understated – as Arsenal are only too aware of – it is arguably more vital at the bottom, where points are generally a lot harder to come by. Foster’s winning of two points for his side gave Birmingham a very small amount of breathing room, but if they achieve narrow survival then they will be worth millions come May.

A late onslaught from Wanderers, after Johan Elmander’s 70th-minute effort, saw Foster make several match-winning saves and command his defence to shut out Bolton’s powerful forward line. Two particular saves, in injury time, were excellent, and they are just a small part of Foster’s 149 stops in the league this season – more than any other goalkeeper. This is a whole 25 more than second-placed Robert Green of West Ham, and although it is more likely that struggling teams will face more shots on goal, had Foster not been quite so up to the challenge, the Blues could well be stranded at the foot of the table. As it is they are 15th, with a real chance of survival and with the second-lowest goals conceded tally of all teams realistically in the relegation battle.

Of course, shot-stopping is far from the only skill a goalkeeper needs to have a real influence in this league; indeed it is difficult to name a single No 1 who is not excellent at making saves. Two others in the scrap at the bottom have pulled off near-impossible efforts at times this season – Wolves’ Wayne Hennessey and Wigan’s Ali Al-Habsi – but they both lack the all-round game of Foster. A look at the passing shows that Robert Green, with 125 in the saves tally, has a 45% pass completion ratio, compared to Hennessey’s 36%. Foster, in this department, has the fourth-highest amount of completed passes with 308. As well as keeping out shots at one end, successful passes relieve pressure and help create chances at the other.

Although both Green and Foster have been guilty of mistakes in the past, the sheer amount of consistent performances the pair have put in – for Green it is not just this season – make up for the rare occasion they let points slip. It is the scoring of goals that ultimately wins league points, but without a commanding presence in goal to make saves and calm his defence, leads would mean very little.

It would be no surprise if, come the end of the season, the teams with the stronger all-round goalkeepers are the ones to have maintained their Premier League status for another year.

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