PRIVATELY Louis van Gaal will be thanking his lucky stars that his goalkeeper David de Gea has been fit and ever-present in Manchester United’s bid to nail down a top-four place in the Premier League this season.
It is going to take an exceptional run of form from another individual to stop the Spanish stopper from cleaning up at Old Trafford’s glitzy end of season awards ceremony in May.
The 23-year-old has been the stand-out performer of the campaign and has been instrumental in United’s five-game winning run of late, but it would be doing him an injustice to believe he’s walking the race to scoop the club’s Player of the Season award just because rivals for United’s coveted club honours are thin on the ground.
Publicly, however, Van Gaal is extremely reluctant to dish out individual praise. Any question about someone’s display is almost always batted back with a ‘that’s his job’ kind of attitude.
Take the question in the post-match press conference at St Mary’s on Monday night after de Gea’s saves had given the subdued Reds the platform for victory.
Asked about the ‘keeper’s form, the United manager replied: “What do you think I have to answer now? He stopped three balls I think. I think three in total. Is that normal or not. Is that exceptional?” On the face of it, a professional goalkeeper making three saves in a 90-minute match is par for the course and maybe not worthy of a song and dance.
But the quality of the saves and the importance to a vital victory for the Reds was cause for celebration and praise.
His eyecatcher against the Saints was to block a Shane Long header in the 52nd minute when the match was perilously poised with a listless United side on a knife edge.
And it is not the first time that De Gea has been United’s saviour this season while the fragile defence in front of him, with 18 different combinations used, has offered him questionable protection. It is likely he will be busy again at Old Trafford on Sunday, when United take on their bitter Lancashire rivals Liverpool. The keeper’s incredible defiance against another Merseyside club, Everton, back in October laid the foundation for a crucial 2-1 win at Old Trafford. He produced similar match-winning displays against Stoke and Arsenal recently. But Van Gaal remains protective of one of Old Trafford’s biggest assets.
If the Dutchman were to shout from the roof tops at length about how great De Gea has been then those words would quickly carry all the way to Madrid. Ears would prick up again at the Bernabeu.
There is surely no doubt that Real Madrid have United’s No.1 on the wishlist to eventually replace the Los Blancos legend Iker Casillas.
Already De Gea is contesting the gloves for Spain as Casillas’ star begins to wane. And if he ousts him completely for the national side then the powers that be at Real will definitely want him.
The United goalkeeper is now in Galactico class.
De Gea’s current Old Trafford contract ends in the summer of 2016 and so far there has been no sign that he’s ready to sign up again. United’s hierarchy are understood to be relaxed about the situation but they must be worried that the lure of a return to his birthplace must be a serious consideration.
Possibly United are laid back about the De Gea contract situation because they have the prospect of a ready-made replacement in Victor Valdes training at the club’s Carrington complex.
Van Gaal offered United’s facilities to Valdes back in October as the 32-year-old free agent worked his way back from a knee injury soon after he announced he was saying farewell to Barcelona at the end of last season.
Valdes had made 535 appearances for Barca after Van Gaal gave him his start at the Nou Camp as a 20-year-old and he thanked the Reds boss in an open letter to Barca fans after 22 years’ service with the Catalan club saying: “Thank you to Louis van Gaal for having the courage to gamble on a talent only he could see.”
The Reds currently have Anders Lindegaard as the main deputy for De Gea but the Dane could be looking to leave in next month’s transfer window.
United must pull out the stops to ensure he has an agreement in place that gives him the platform to be revered over time like Van der Saar and Schmeichel and not become another United star who ends up in Real’s clutches.
Meanwhile, Phil Jones is targeting a Christmas return to the United first-team after he began training again this week.
The 22-year-old has been suffering with shin splints and has not played since United’s 2-2 draw at West Bromwich Albion on October 20.
Van Gaal prefers players to complete a two-week training schedule before they are considered for the first-team, so the earliest Jones could feature is against Newcastle United on St Stephen’s Day.