For the first time since August 2013, Manchester United find themselves ahead of Manchester City in the Premier League table.
Being able to look back and see the noisy neighbours dumbfounded and shocked at their current predicament, having been eight points clear of Louis van Gaal’s team a mere five weeks ago, and now squabbling in fourth spot – despite being identified by some as active participants in a ‘two horse race’ for the title – evokes a palpable level of schadenfreude.
The upcoming derby gives Man United an invaluable opportunity to assert themselves over a shaky Man City at Old Trafford. Victory would ensure a comfy four point gap between the two sides going into the final eight games of the season.
Finishing ahead of the current champions would be a momentous feat – especially when you realise that the majority of this season has been a cacophony of dour away draws and Moyes/Van Gaal comparisons. It would furthermore be the ideal springboard for a much needed title assault next season.
However, with a European spot still far from being cemented, there is a lot of work to be done and a considerable amount of ‘twitchy bum time’ (as Louis calls it) to endure as a compelling season nears its climax.
Despite that, Man United fans ought to be confident. Not just quietly confident, outwardly confident. Why? Well it’s down to that man between the sticks.
David de Gea is well on his way to unsurprisingly securing consecutive ‘Manchester United Players’ Player of the Year’ titles after a season that has seen the Spaniard single handedly keep his team in an innumerable set of encounters.
Since sparking global admiration (even bewilderment) after a mind boggling foray of injury time saves against Everton back in October, a win that saw Louis van Gaal see his team climb into the top four for the first time, de Gea has continuously lived up to an uproariously high benchmark of brilliance throughout the season.
Being the only player to have played every minute under the tutelage of Louis van Gaal, de Gea has been rightfully revered by Man United fans for his solidarity and acrobatics in front of a team incessantly bedraggled with injuries or imbalance.
In a nine-month period that has seen a historical amount of chopping and changing since the arrival of the Dutchman, the lanky Spaniard has been the one omnipresent figure of the Louis van Gaal era. After being labeled as ‘useless’, ‘out of his depth’, ‘worse than Massimo Taibi’ upon his trembling start to life in English football, most notably in that opening day fixture at the Hawthorns, de Gea can now be rightfully regarded as the backbone to Man United’s new look team.
The evolution that has taken place since that day is nothing short of remarkable. A flappy, timid, weak, nervous boy has grown into an imperious, indispensible asset for Louis van Gaal. It hasn’t been a smooth progression, however; the Atletico Madrid youth product has occasionally reminded United fans of the shy goalkeeper that once was, a certain late blunder in last years’ League Cup semi-final springs to mind.
The occasional blunder, however, isn’t something we should berate the 24 year old for being guilty of. Firstly, since robotic goalkeepers are yet to be introduced by FIFA or the FA, every goalkeeper is prone to error – meaning we shouldn’t be too upset if he concedes the odd soft goal. Secondly, at an incredibly young age, de Gea is bound to only improve.
It is for this reason exactly that the first call of action come the end of the season (preferably sooner) has to be guaranteeing that de Gea’s future lies with Man United. As talk of a potential move to Real Madrid refuses to die down, Ed Woodward needs to hurriedly throw some money at the Spaniard and tearfully beg him to remain at the Theatre of Dreams.
De Gea is quickly growing into one of the more potent goalkeeping assets in world football. Now established ahead of the dilapidated and ageing Casillas, he is soon to be Spain’s new number one having received his first call up back in May 2014.
In short, for Man United to return to their exhilarating, compelling, occasionally arrogant best, they need to hold on to a keeper that is soon to be the hottest property between the sticks in world football – at all costs.
It must be acknowledged that football is, indeed, a team sport. And this season has seen a team slowly gel into something very exciting; but they’ve managed to grow in confidence mainly as a result of their last line of defence being dextrously at their rescue when needed most.
The Spaniard has quite literally single handedly scalped points for his team this season, and has been the central aspect behind Louis van Gaal’s project finally getting off the ground.
So with the idea of finishing above the champions no longer a distant hope and now a glaring possibility, Man United cannot afford to lose any of their remaining matches if they are to pull off such a hefty achievement. With tricky trips to Stamford Bridge and Goodison Park on the horizon, that may sound like a tall order.
But with a keeper who has grown accustomed to pulling off the impossible this season, avoiding defeat in such a tricky run-in is something Man United should aim for. With such a formidable, confident and forceful man behind the back four, a great deal is doable.