“We have two fantastic goalkeepers, and we have a third goalkeeper that I think will be the best Portuguese goalkeeper of the next generation,” said Jose Mourinho earlier this month when Goal asked him about his plans for David de Gea and Sergio Romero. On Sunday, Joel Pereira gets his chance to show just how good he can be.
The 20-year-old has already tasted the first-team environment at Manchester United once before when replacing Sergio Romero for the final 10 minutes of January’s 4-0 FA Cup win over Wigan Athletic, but Sunday’s Premier League finale against Crystal Palace will mark his full debut at a time when the spotlight is on amidst rumours that De Gea could soon finalise a protracted move to Real Madrid.
As United fans begin to wonder who might be their club’s long-term No.1, Pereira has seen his position at the club change markedly over the last couple of years. The Swiss-born Portuguese spent the first half of 2015-16 on loan at Rochdale, where he made his first eight senior appearances. While he only kept one clean sheet at Spotland, he left a great impression on many at the club.
After returning to Old Trafford in the winter, Pereira helped the Under-21s clinch the Premier League title for a second successive year and celebrated the feat by jumping into the away end at White Hart Lane after the crowning 3-2 win against Tottenham.
This season he made a big step up, joining Portuguese top-flight side Belenenses on loan and seeing his reputation skyrocket thanks to a string of fine displays. When United’s long-term No.3 keeper Sam Johnstone insisted it was time for him to be selfish by looking for work away from M16, Pereira was recalled from his homeland in order to work more closely with De Gea and Romero.
The euphoria of making his debut in January was tempered little more than 24 hours later by a knee ligament injury in an Under-23 match against Everton in which he had earlier saved a penalty, but since returning to fitness he has impressed enough in training for Mourinho to go public with his expectations for the youngster.
As a tall, commanding presence he certainly has the build to suggest he can become a top-class goalkeeper in time, while he has the vocal game for the job of organising the back line, too, thanks to his confident, naturally outgoing demeanour. Even when coming on for those last 10 minutes against Wigan he had no qualms about bossing around senior defenders Chris Smalling and Marcos Rojo when necessary.
With the steps Pereira has made over the past two years, he has been edging closer and closer to fulfilling the promise of his earlier years, and now he is all set to keep goal in a Premier League game for the first time. It won’t be his last, though, by any stretch of the imagination, and his huge hands could well be ready to fill the gloves of De Gea in the longer term.
If De Gea does leave this summer, United might well move into the transfer market to find a replacement for the short term. But there is real belief around Old Trafford, not least in the mind of Mourinho, that Pereira could be the answer for some years to come.