The Last Word: De Gea's fingertips keep United clinging on

As dynamic as they were dexterous, Bilbao would have been out of sight but for De Gea

Back in the old Fleet Street days, there was a notorious tyrant who would mystify one of his sub-editors by addressing him as "Fingertips". Eventually the poor fellow summoned up courage to ask his boss why. Came the reply: "Because, sonny, that's all you are clinging to your job by."

During his first months at Old Trafford, for broadly similar reasons, "Fingertips" seemed an apposite sobriquet for David de Gea. With his silly whiskers and flapping gloves, he resembled some pubescent pinniped panicking under the ice. Anders Lindegaard watched him picking the ball out of the net and wondered why he should be left to "pick his nose" on the bench. Eventually, their manager seemed to agree and they had just exchanged roles when Lindegaard got injured. It is barely an exaggeration to say that De Gea has since kept Manchester United's season alive more or less singlehanded.

The fingertips of that hand, sometimes their very cuticles, have deflected shots that seemed not merely booked for the top corner, but already unpacked and ordering room service. In so young a keeper, De Gea's response to all the calumny suggests equivalent mental strength.

The 21-year-old has still to convince everyone that he can command his area, but his predecessor ultimately owed his authority to experience rather than physique. In time, he will doubtless develop an aerial presence equal even with those who generated all that hot air about his inadequacies. He instead finds himself covering a multitude of sins in front of him.

That late save from Juan Mata at Stamford Bridge, when United had retrieved a three-goal deficit, was the psychological equivalent of stopping a whole dam with a thumbnail. His man-of-the-match performance at Norwich enabled Ryan Giggs to pilfer two priceless extra points in added time. De Gea proceeded to prolong United's European campaign, first against Ajax, and again on Thursday. This time, however, it can surely be only a temporary reprieve.

Some seem bewildered that the second-best team in their precious Premier League should be so manifestly inferior to the fifth-best in La Liga. Sure enough, they promptly wonder whether any of the Athletic Bilbao starlets, or even the mad genius prowling the dugout, might duly have earned exaltation by one of our big clubs. Such is the self-regard of the English game, where the Europa League has been treated as beneath the dignity of Manchester.

But while Premier League clubs retain the hype and the dough, their misadventures in Europe arguably urge a more organic approach to squad development and tactics in the Financial Fair Play era. Athletic confine their recruitment to the Basque Country, and its vicinity, with a total pool approximately equivalent to Greater Manchester. From a squad assembled at barely €20m [£17m], Marcelo Bielsa presented a young team that never backed off in an arena most English teams enter with all the swagger of marmots being strafed by napalm.

God knows why. It certainly can't be an intimidating atmosphere. Nor can it be Sir Alex Ferguson's senescent notion of the kind of midfield required in European football nowadays. (United's only home victims this campaign are Otelul Galati). United fans know good football when they see it, and will admit that Athletic were vindicated in their lack of inhibition. As dynamic as they were dexterous, they would have been out of sight but for De Gea.

You can only admire the way United have hung tough in the league since that humiliation by their neighbours. European teams, however, instead seem to be picking up a scent of decay. The only way United might be said to be "getting closer" to Barcelona would be to switch their home fixtures to Plymouth. Yes, the Champions League is poorer for the fact that Old Trafford hosts Europa League fixtures on Thursdays – but only in the sense that Athletic would give Barcelona a decent game.

They did so in La Liga, in a terrific draw; and the two will contest the Copa del Rey final. Pep Guardiola sought out Bielsa before committing to a coaching career. Bielsa's counsel lasted 11 hours. He is obsessive, cerebral, unpredictable. Suddenly the wiseguys are wondering whether he might do for Chelsea. At first the Athletic squad struggled with their new manager's innovative methods. Three defeats and a draw represented the club's worst start in 32 years. De Gea will sympathise. Now, however, he may suspect that only one of them will be picking up European silverware any time soon. Unaccountably, of course, United are still in the tie – but only by De Gea's fingertips.