Saturday 22 July 2017

'Fantastic' De Gea stands tall to repel Stoke onslaught

Stoke City 1
Manchester Utd 1

Javier Hernandez prays on the pitch
just before the start of Manchester
United's match against Stoke City
Javier Hernandez prays on the pitch just before the start of Manchester United's match against Stoke City

Mark Ogden

It was the moment, just two minutes into the game, when David de Gea raced off his line to half-punch Rory Delap's missile of a throw-in that the Manchester United goalkeeper came of age in his ill-fitting No 1 shirt.

The fact that De Gea failed to connect properly with his attempted clearance was of secondary importance to the courage the 20-year-old displayed in meeting the unique challenge of Stoke City head on.

Fortune favours the brave and, five weeks into his first season in English football, the Spanish youngster can now say he has endured the crucible of the Britannia Stadium and survived.

De Gea, United's £18.3m successor to the retired Edwin van der Sar, could still give a passable impression of a Sunday morning goalkeeper thanks to his incongruous appearance between the posts -- the baggy, untucked shirt and adolescent facial hair.

However, as Stoke pounded his goal from all directions, he stood up to the test. The early fumbles against Manchester City and West Brom are fading into the memory, replaced by images of penalty saves against Arsenal, scrambled blocks against Chelsea and a hat-trick of reflex saves against Stoke on Saturday.

His grounding in La Liga with Atletico Madrid has left De Gea clearly unprepared for the crosses and high balls of the Premier League, but he appears emboldened by the task of adjusting to the demands rather than cowed by it.

After earning United a point at Stoke and preserving his team's unbeaten record this season, De Gea has turned a corner.

"I don't think you get much more physical games than away to Stoke," said United midfielder Darren Fletcher.

"They bombard you with balls into the box, set-pieces and corners, but he dealt with it well and he will take a lot of confidence from that performance, which was a bit of a welcome to English football.

"David did fantastic. We showed him plenty of videos and there was a lot of preparation going into the game, showing him what to expect, but it didn't faze him and he stood up to the challenge.

"When you come here, you really have to embrace the challenge of facing Stoke. If you come here with any fear, it is going to cost you."

United manager Alex Ferguson will also have been delighted by the performance of Phil Jones. The teenager consistently stepped out of defence, going on buccaneering runs that took him into the heart of opposition territory. When he did so Anderson or Fletcher dropped back to fill the hole. It was intriguing to watch.

With United's overlapping full-backs -- in this case Antonio Valencia and Patrice Evra -- a well-known threat, opponents have begun leaving space in the centre as they cover the flanks, space which Jones attacks.

Similar runs in United's last two matches, against Bolton and Chelsea, created goals for Wayne Rooney. One wonders what Rio Ferdinand, who in his youth showed a similar facility for stepping into midfield, only to be discouraged by club and country, thought of his young team-mate's freedom.

Prior to the game, Stoke manager Tony Pulis had conceded that United's resolve and battle-readiness had contributed to their success in being the only club to enjoy a 100pc record against his team since their return to the top flight in 2008.

And United's start, without the injured Wayne Rooney and Jonny Evans, who aggravated an ankle injury in the warm-up, suggested that the champions would make it seven straight victories against Stoke.

United could have had a third- minute penalty when Jonathan Woodgate bundled Javier Hernandez over inside the 18-yard box. Referee Peter Walton waved play on, but Hernandez lasted just five more minutes before limping off.

Nani put United ahead with another stunning solo goal when he played a one-two with Fletcher before stroking in a left-footed shot from 15 yards. But despite United's high-intensity game, pressing the ball in Stoke territory, the home side rallied.

De Gea brilliantly palmed a vicious Andy Wilkinson shot onto the bar before tipping a goal-bound Jon Walters strike around a post.

He made his third stunning save of the match when he kept out a Peter Crouch effort with his elbow in the second half.

Poor marking by Ferdinand and Jones, however, left De Gea exposed on 52 minutes when Crouch rose six yards out to head Matthew Etherington's corner into the net.

It was Crouch's first goal for Stoke since his August move from Tottenham and enabled him to join an elite group of players to score Premier League goals for six different clubs.

Satisfying

The most satisfying statistic for Stoke, however, was not Crouch's personal milestone, but their success in finally taking a point from United, who will ultimately view this as a point gained rather than two lost, judging by the ongoing improvement of Pulis's team.

"That was one of our best performances since I came to the Britannia," Jermaine Pennant said. "United have been steamrollering other teams, but we limited them to only a handful of chances. It's a massive point.

"If you had said, before the start of the season, that we would take five points from Liverpool, Chelsea and United, people would have laughed in your face.

"Nobody likes coming here, and now that includes the champions. I would hate to be an away team coming here now. They don't like it because they know it's a fortress." (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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