Manchester United are actively searching for an experienced and imposing goalkeeper to replace David de Gea at the end of the season because of a growing acceptance at Old Trafford that the Spaniard is unsuitable for the demands of English football.
Alex Ferguson has become exasperated by De Gea's inability to iron out the flaws in his game and senior players at the club are understood to have lost faith in the 22-year-old even before his costly injury-time mistake against Tottenham on Sunday, which led to the home side claiming a 1-1 draw at White Hart Lane.
United had hoped that De Gea would emulate Chelsea's Petr Cech by adjusting to the rigours of the Premier League at a young age, but there is now a sense he lacks the qualities required to succeed in England.
While Ferguson and United's goalkeeping coach, Eric Steele, remain convinced of De Gea's potential to become one of the world's best, there is a belief that his lack of progress during his 18 months at the club, in dealing with crosses in particular, has left the Spanish U-21 international more likely to thrive in a less physical environment than the Premier League.
Concerns over the reliability of Anders Lindegaard, brought to a head by an alarming performance during a 4-3 victory at Reading last month, have presented Ferguson with a problem in terms of his goalkeeping options for the remainder of the season. With United still pursuing three trophies, De Gea is likely to be selected ahead of Danish international Lindegaard for the club's key fixtures on the grounds of his greater shot-stopping abilities. But with Tottenham on Sunday the latest team to profit from a series of high balls into United's penalty are, the Premier League leaders fear that opponents will continue to target De Gea in similar fashion and add to the pressure on the defenders.
Having scoured the globe for a long-term replacement for Edwin van der Sar two years ago, United already possess a comprehensive dossier on the strengths, weaknesses and availability of the leading goalkeepers in the game. But while the club have recently scouted Stoke's Asmir Begovic and Galatasaray's Uruguay international Fernando Muslera, it is understood that there is no outstanding candidate to replace De Gea.
The decision by Victor Valdes to reject a new contract at Barcelona will ensure that United consider the 31-year-old, while the uncertain future of Real Madrid's Iker Casillas could present an opportunity to recruit a goalkeeper regarded by many as the best in the world.
Both Barcelona and Real are monitoring De Gea's situation because of persistent rumours of his unhappiness in Manchester.
With De Gea's popstar girlfriend, Edurne Garcia Almagro, continuing to live in Madrid, a return to Spain would appeal to the former Atletico Madrid youngster, whose reputation remains high in his home country, despite his failure to acclimatise to English football.
United have attempted to fast-track De Gea's development by imposing a strength-building programme on the wiry goalkeeper, while Steele, who is staunchly protective of him, has taken Spanish lessons to aid communication on the training ground.
But De Gea's recurring frailties remain an issue, with Ferguson highlighting some of his mistakes in recent weeks.
While dealing with crosses has been an Achilles heel for De Gea since his arrival at United – his failed punch against Spurs was merely the latest example – his tendency to push balls back into play after making a save has led to United conceding a number of goals this season, with Daniel Sturridge's strike for Liverpool at Old Trafford last week the most recent.
De Gea's footwork is regarded as one of his assets, with his clean kicking and distribution a central reason for United recruiting him. However, he has also shown a worrying inclination to deal with balls in the six-yard box with his legs, rather than smothering the ball, and this unusual characteristic, combined with his poor communication, has added to his defenders' lack of confidence in him.
The lack of trust has led one source to claim that, while Van der Sar would do little and then produce one crucial save to win a game, De Gea is more inclined to make one costly mistake each time he plays.
Ferguson's track record for disposing with failing goalkeepers, as highlighted by the likes of Jim Leighton, Massimo Taibi and Mark Bosnich, underlines the pressure on De Gea to eradicate his flaws. But with United's search for a replacement already under way, De Gea's yearning for Madrid might ultimately hand both parties an escape route this summer. (© Daily Telegraph, London)