All eyes will be on Cristiano Ronaldo tonight, as the Manchester United forward looks to add to his frankly eye-watering 25 goals in 35 games against Atletico Madrid. The Portugal international is coming off a hat-trick against Tottenham Hotspur, and Old Trafford hopes are high he can keep the momentum going. But there is another indispensable member of the United squad who knows Atletico all too well, and he too could prove crucial.
David De Gea emerged from the Atleti youth system to make 35 appearances for the club’s second team in Segunda Division B. The Madrid-born stopper made his debut aged 18 in 2009, and would become first choice the following season. De Gea turned out 49 times in all competitions that season, winning the Europa League and UEFA Super Cup in the process. Confidently making the number one jersey his own in his teenage years, De Gea’s efforts earned him a move to the Premier League.
De Gea was identified by Sir Alex Ferguson as a replacement for the retiring Edwin van der Sar. The departing Dutchman left behind some huge gloves to fill, and they hung loosely on his successor at first. De Gea endured early struggles, particularly in a defeat to Blackburn Rovers and the infamous 6-1 reverse to Manchester City. This baptism of fire could have signalled the end for the young Spaniard, and Ferguson experimented with starting understudy Anders Lindegaard between the sticks. De Gea later reflected that he considered leaving after a chastening first season in England.
The turning point arrived the following season, when De Gea faced Atleti’s old rivals, Real Madrid. The Spain international’s performance was branded “excellent” by Ferguson, as a string of exceptional saves kept United in the tie at 1-1. De Gea would keep the momentum going, and ended the season as a Premier League champion, and as part of the PFA Team of the Year.
The custodian barely looked back in the years that followed. Four consecutive United Player of the Year awards, five appearances in Team of the Year and a place in the FIFPro World XI tell their own story. De Gea’s personal silverware has outweighed that of his club over the years, but he has been a lighthouse of certainty in the choppy seas of the post-Ferguson years.
The last couple of seasons have seen the waves begin to lap at that lighthouse, with parts of the facade crumbling into the sea. Costly errors against Arsenal, Everton, Watford and Crystal Palace in the 2019/20 season led to calls for Dean Henderson to take his place. The following season saw fans partially get their wish, as the England goalkeeper eased his way into the number one slot that once looked to be De Gea’s permanent home. When De Gea did return to the lineup for the Europa League final, his failure to save any of the 11 penalties he faced in the shootout, followed by his own miss losing United the game, conspired to resemble the end of an era.
Henderson’s struggles with injury and COVID-19 over the summer saw De Gea restored to the United net as the 2021/22 season got underway. Were it not for some rotten luck for the former Sheffield United man, De Gea’s United career could have been over. Instead he is enjoying quite the resurgence. The match-saving stops are back, as the 31-year-old has arguably been United’s most influential player this season. This is perhaps as much an indictment on their attacking ambitions as it is a celebration of their goalkeeping quality, but there is no denying De Gea has been outstanding. He even snapped a five-year streak without saving a penalty by stopping Mark Noble’s effort for West Ham United in September. The best may be yet to come, as De Gea reunites with a familiar foe.
Ronaldo has understandably been the focus of the build-up. He’s scored countless goals against Atletico, he’s just scored a hat-trick against Spurs and he’s Ronaldo. But De Gea’s role is arguably just as crucial. One of the experienced heads at United, and one of a small circle with a Premier League medal to their name, these big European nights are where De Gea needs to come to the fore. The added narrative of the game coming against his former club is simply window dressing. De Gea will have to repel an attack that boasts Antoine Griezmann, Joao Felix and Luis Suarez. He will have to do so from behind a defence that has faltered more often than it has fired this season. Football at its simplest is a game of defence and attack, and so much of United’s defence hinges on what De Gea is capable of.
David De Gea left Atletico Madrid as a boy, and meets them tonight as a man. He has lived a lifetime of football highs and lows in the intervening years. But tonight at Old Trafford, he seeks to remind the Colchoneros of the prodigious talent they saw over a decade ago.
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