De Gea comes of age for Manchester United in career-defining show of strength

The 22-year-old goalkeeper delivered his greatest performance yet for the Old Trafford outfit at the Santiago Bernabeu, helping the Red Devils to an impressive 1-1 draw

By Oliver Platt

This was a test of nerve for David de Gea and one which he passed with flying colours. The goalkeeper was not the centre of attention in the build-up to this tie but his performance was always likely to be crucial and, to Manchester United’s delight, that proved the case for all the right reasons.

Goalkeeping has long been a problem for Sir Alex Ferguson – after Peter Schmeichel’s departure it took the manager six years to solve his woes in between the posts by signing Edwin van der Sar, who helped in 2008 to deliver the club’s first, and so far only, Champions League success since the great Dane’s final appearance on that night in Barcelona.

It looked as if a similar problem might face Ferguson when neither De Gea nor Anders Lindegaard grasped the No.1 jersey convincingly after the Spaniard was captured for around £17 million, the most a British club had ever paid for a goalkeeper. But now, handed a run of games and, importantly, the confidence that comes with that trust, De Gea has started to live up to his considerable price tag.

This was his return to his home city, but not to the familiar surroundings of the Vicente Calderon and Atletico Madrid. De Gea has played in one capital derby at the Santiago Bernabeu before but as significant an occasion as that must have been on his 20th birthday, this was even bigger. He set the tone in the opening minutes, producing arguably his best save of the match by flinging himself across goal to palm Fabio Coentrao’s on to the post.

United only dropped deeper and deeper as the match wore on, and De Gea’s evening became increasingly hectic as a result. Ferguson had promised to attack before the match and seemed true to his word when he named Shinji Kagawa, Robin van Persie, Wayne Rooney and Danny Welbeck in his starting line-up, but the latter’s opening goal, even if quickly cancelled out by Cristiano Ronaldo, gave them a platform to sit tight and hold on. They would not have done so without their goalkeeper.

Coentrao was denied for a second time when De Gea leapt across his goal to block the left-back’s shot with his legs, and a drive by Angel di Maria that might have created a dangerous rebound was clutched securely. Occasionally, questions have been asked of De Gea’s tendency to palm shots back out into the danger zone in front of him but there were no spillages on this night.

For all the brilliance of the players in front of them, the first leg of this tie rested on the two goalkeepers. Diego Lopez made several similarly vital stops to prevent United from completing a classic smash-and-grab, turning one Van Persie shot onto the crossbar before palming another of the Dutchman’s drives wide of the goal.

It is easy to focus on the importance of Ronaldo, Van Persie and the other stars littered throughout these two teams but this competition has frequently been influenced by great goalkeeping. Petr Cech was magnificent last season for Chelsea and Jerzy Dudek’s incredible double save for Liverpool in the 2005 final lives long in the memory. On this evidence, Sir Alex would be forgiven for wondering if De Gea might give an imperfect United team a real chance.

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