David De Gea for Manchester United's player of the year? That's not quite as strange as it sounds...
Thursday 19 April 2012
David de Gea is hoping his stunning last-gasp save at Chelsea in February will turn out to be the defining moment of Manchester United's season.
Prior to that game at Stamford Bridge, there had been lengthy debate as to whether De Gea should even be selected. He had missed the previous league victory over Stoke due to a minor injury, at which stage he was already receiving criticism for his performance in the FA Cup defeat at Liverpool, which even Sir Alex Ferguson has since said was not a good day for the Spain Under-21 goalkeeper.
However, Ferguson kept faith in his £18m summer arrival from Atletico Madrid and, not for the first time, was rewarded.
Questions may have been asked about how United ended up finding themselves three goals behind against Chelsea but, having hauled themselves level, to then lose anyway could have had a devastating effect on team morale. Yet lose is almost certainly what would have happened without De Gea, who somehow managed to claw away Juan Mata's injury-time free-kick which was heading into the top corner.
It was a seminal moment for United, who embarked on an eight-match winning run that helped them take maximum advantage of Manchester City's collapse, and also De Gea, who kept his sixth clean sheet in seven games in Sunday's win over Aston Villa.
"When you look back over a season there are lots of defining moments and key goals," he said. "But, I suppose, from a team point of view, and particularly from a personal point of view, the fact the save was right in the last minute was decisive. It gave me a huge confidence boost as well and that was important.
"Now we are in front and we have to try and stay there because it would be a dream come true to win the league in my first season."
It means the odd fault – De Gea did not challenge for the corner from which Victor Moses had a goal harshly disallowed in the match against Wigan recently – can be excused, and outside scrutiny is not quite as intense.
In fact, De Gea is even being spoken of as a potential United player-of-the-year in a season when there are few stand-out candidates. "It is nice to know supporters are voting for me," said De Gea. "It is always a positive when the fans are behind you.
"This is something that I can sense when I am on the field and it makes me feel more relaxed. It is a source of extra motivation when you know that the fans are right behind you and are rooting for you.
"But all that aside, it is just a case of getting your head down, keep working hard and making sure you do have a continuous improvement all the time."
Jonny Evans has suggested De Gea's inability to speak English was a positive in those early days. Yet leaving for somewhere so different at such a young age may have been part of the problem, along with the weather and the food.
"Before I came, people back home were saying the weather in England is terrible and the food is not much better," he said. "But I am quite a happy, easy-going kind of guy who likes to joke around and, to be totally honest, I like the food, the weather has not been so bad either and I am trying to pick up as much English as I can so I can take part in the dressing-room banter."
In addition, De Gea has been pushing himself in the weights room, trying to add the additional muscle required in a Premier League goalkeeper. "People are aware I have been trying to gain a little bit of weight in terms of muscle, maybe an odd kilo to bulk up a little bit," he said. "But football-wise, there are not too many differences. The concentration levels are certainly the same, you can't let them drop for an instant."
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