Sunday, February 05, 2012

Pressure on De Gea and Ferguson as United look to keep pace with leaders City at Chelsea...

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Manchester United are set to take on Chelsea at Stamford Bridge in what has become a very important Premier League fixture in recent seasons, largely thanks to the self-indulgence of Roman Abramovich. The champions are currently three points behind  Manchester City, and Ferguson will want to keep the pressure on the league leaders.

Ahead of the game, the United team news is both good and bad; good because Tom Cleverley is reportedly fit again, as is Ashley Young, Wayne Rooney and Nani, but it's not so good where goalkeepers are concerned, because Anders Lindegaard, the club's new number one is out injured for up to six weeks.

Lindegaard had managed to dislodge David de Gea, following a string of high-profile errors by the former Athletico Madrid youngster. However, Lindegaard sustained a training ground injury which led to a recall for De Gea for last weekend's FA Cup tie at Anfield, but once again the young Spanish stopper was badly at fault for one of Liverpool's goals.  United were eventually knocked out of the FA Cup. Not for the first time this season, United were dumped out of a cup competition, partly because of a goalkeeping error.

At one point during Sunday's FA Cup tie, it looked as though De Gea had a touch of 'Anfield flu'; it looked as though he wanted to be replaced...and for no obvious reason. Daniel Taylor of the Guardian later wrote that it was akin to Basil Fawlty complaining about his old shrapnel wound playing up...

But whatever we are to make of De Gea's Anfield antics, United's season has been blighted by injuries.

Both De Gea and Lindegaard subsequently missed the midweek win over Stoke City, in which United ran out 2-0 winners, thanks to two converted penalty kicks by  Berbatov and Hernandez. Ben Amos was in goal for United against Stoke, but he will likely be on the bench at Stamford Bridge. Nonetheless, the no.1 goalkeeper position is a matter of serious concern for Ferguson, despite what he might say publicly...

Ferguson splashed out £18m on De Gea last summer and so it comes as no great surprise that he has been defending the Spaniard this week, he would, wouldn't he? The fact is,  no amount of spin will deflect attention away from De Gea - the spotlight is very much on him today and it will be for the remainder of the campaign, but this is entirely a self-made situation.

Ferguson's judgement has to be questioned too, because, frankly, de Gea looks ill-equipped to succeed in the Premier League. It wouldn't matter if De Gea was playing for any other Premier League club - if rivals' see a perceived weakness they will make every attempt to exploit that weakness.

When he arrived at United, it was reported that De Gea had conceded the most goals from distance in La Liga last season. As if that wasn't bad enough, to put it bluntly, the former Athletico Madrid 'keeper has been found badly wanting when it comes to dealing with crosses into the United penalty area. Many supporters and pundits are now asking themselves what exactly did United see in De Gea? Sure, he makes the occasional eye-catching save, but that's no use if you continue to make basic errors.

Top-class goalkeepers' pride themselves on keeping clean sheets and not making too many mistakes. So far in his short United career,  de Gea has spectacularly failed to live up to expectations.

De Gea's presence in between the sticks will not inspire confidence in the United back-four, quite the reverse, at least that is the big danger. Mutual trust and effective communication are vital elements in any strong defensive unit, and it is safe to assume that United's central defenders are less than 100% sure what de Gea will do when that ball is pumped into those danger areas.

No one, including Ferguson, needs to be reminded that all successful teams are built on solid foundations. It is hard to believe that it was presumably the same scouting network that identified a world-class  goalkeeper to be like Peter Schmeichel. Signing Edwin van der Sar was an easy to decision to make; but those two apart, they have to a large degree been fabulous exceptions to the rule.

When we look back down the years, despite all of his wonderful success, Ferguson has really struggled at times to find reliable goalkeepers; Massimo Taibi aka the "Venetian Blind" and hapless Ben Foster are just two names from the list of many failures.

With the benefit of hindsight, clearly, Manchester United made a big mistake when allowing Tim Howard to leave the club to join Everton. Howard is a safer bet than any of Ferguson's current options, barring possibly Lindegaard, but the jury is very out on him too.

If de Gea is going to justify his hefty price tag and earn the right to be selected in the United first team and into the bargain silence his many critics, then today at Stamford Bridge would be a good place to start to prove his worth.

As if more spice were needed ahead of this important West London fixture, we have the prospect of John Terry and Rio Ferdinand facing-off following the unsavoury racism storm involving the now deposed England skipper and Rio's younger brother, Anton. Let us hope Monday's headlines focus on football (and no more mistakes) instead of alleged acts of racism.

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