The upward curve of Manchester United's season should continue tonight at Ewood Park. After some difficult moments earlier in the campaign, United now have the Premier League title comfortably within their reach. Victory tonight would move them five points clear of Manchester City.
No-one better symbolises that improvement, or is more responsible for it, than young Spanish goalkeeper David De Gea. Signed from Atletico Madrid last summer, De Gea struggled at first with the transition from England.
Soft goals conceded against Manchester City and West Bromwich Albion, and a habitual struggle under crosses, marked De Gea as a goalkeeper still coming to terms with the unique challenges of English football. But having grown in confidence and, seemingly, in physical stature, De Gea now has the authority to accompany his remarkable gifts, and his manager, Sir Alex Ferguson, is delighted with how he is playing.
"I think the thing is he has stood up as a man," Ferguson said of his goalkeeper. "Similar to what I was saying about [much-maligned Blackburn manager] Steve Kean, he got a grip of it, he didn't let it get to him and the boy has improved in every game.
"Now he is playing with confidence, and confidence is a great factor for any footballer, as you know. But he stood up to the situation. He knew it was a challenge. It took him time to adjust to the different ways of the English game as opposed to the Spanish game but he is showing that now."
Ferguson is right. De Gea has been one of the best goalkeepers in the country in recent months. With his almost preternatural reflexes, and his gymnast's spring and grace, he is able to make saves that most others are not.
De Gea's stop from Juan Mata's free-kick in the final minutes of United's 3-3 draw at Chelsea was probably the best of the season so far. Now, like a true United player, De Gea is coming good at precisely the right time.
He impressed again last Monday night, in United's 1-0 home defeat of Fulham.
"The other night, once again, he made two or three really terrific punches in the second half of the game when they started to put the ball into the box," Ferguson said. "He has shown fantastic improvement."
The last game in which De Gea struggled was the surprising 3-2 defeat to tonight's opponents Blackburn Rovers at Old Trafford on New Year's Eve. Ferguson believes he has used that experience to improve.
"What we expected was his terrific ability to show through, and that is what we are seeing now," the United manager said. "The area in which he has been criticised has been dealing with aerial balls into the box, not least the corner against Blackburn; he should have dealt with that better, he knew that, but has addressed that situation."
There is still some way to go before De Gea can match the assured authority of Edwin Van Der Sar, his predecessor as United's No 1, but he is only 21. And the greatest goalkeeper in United's history, Peter Schmeichel, said this weekend: "De Gea is a great keeper. I am happy for David that he has justified his signing in the last month. You need time to adapt to play in goal for United because of the pressure and responsibility that goes with it. In the last few weeks De Gea has been able to convince even his biggest critics. I think he is the right man for the job."
United are now in the enviable position of being able to write off the Manchester derby in four weeks' time. They could lose that and still retain their Premier League title by winning their seven other remaining games – none of which looks difficult.
Not that Ferguson is getting carried away. "The game at Blackburn has always been a difficult match," he said. "It is a local derby and tends to be a bit feisty. We know how quickly football can turn on you and bite you."
Blackburn are fighting at the opposite end of the table. Their win at Old Trafford launched a better run of results, thanks largely to the goal threat of Yakubu and Junior Hoilett. But recent wins for Wigan, Queen's Park Rangers and Bolton Wanderers have dragged Rovers back into it. Defeat tonight will force them back into the relegation zone, propelling QPR back out of it at their expense.
Blackburn: ROBINSON, LOWE, DANN, HANLEY, MARTIN OLSSON, FORMICA, NZONZI, PEDERSEN, MARCUS OLSSON, HOILETT, YAKUBU
Man Utd: DE GEA, EVRA, EVANS, FERDINAND, RAFAEL, YOUNG, SCHOLES, ROONEY, CARRICK, VALENCIA, HERNANDEZ
Kick-off Tonight, 8pm (Sky Sports 1)
Odds Home 7-1; Draw 4-1, Away 4-11
Referee H Webb (S Yorkshire)
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