The manner in which the two Manchester clubs have switched positions this season is uncanny. Meanwhile, the two first-choice goalkeepers of the either side have also faced an almost exact reversal. Joe Hart, a man dubbed by many as ‘Europe’s top goalkeeper’ has looked increasingly careless this season and on numerous occasions, his mistakes have cost the Sky Blues crucial points and thereby facilitated the painfully wide gap between the top two in the table.
There is no doubt that Hart is an accomplished goalkeeper and that he is blessed with innate skill when it comes to his all round game. Natural ability is a tremendous plus point for the Englishman. He reads the game well, he anticipates situations and he moves swiftly while he is normally deals with crosses effectively.
A disappointing season for Hart
However, Hart has had an average season so far, miles apart from the stellar form he enjoyed in the last campaign, when he was the backbone of the Manchester side’s first Premier League title-winning season. He has continuously disappointed fans and critics, and some terrible performances have left even Roberto Mancini furious with the stopper. Roy Keane has in fact called him “cocky”, saying that there is a fine line between being “cocky” and “confident” and the City goalkeeper has crossed it.
In the match against Tottenham Hotspur last year, he was to blame for the game’s opening goal, deflecting a header off his chest into the back of the net. In City’s defeat to Sunderland, Hart was preposterously out of position and reacted too listlessly to stop ex-teammate Adam Johnson’s goal. The 25 year old’s unfortunate positioning of his wall allowed Luis Suarez room to rifle a free kick by him at Anfield. He then slipped up against Southampton by fluffing a simple save from a Rickie Lambert shot and letting it squirm between his legs for Steven Davis to prod over the line.
Hart's crucial blunders
Let’s turn our attention to the other club from Manchester. David De Gea’s acquisition raised many eyebrows initially and he didn’t get the best of starts. His debut, against Manchester City in the Community Shield saw him at fault for two first-half goals, leading to claims that United had made a huge mistake.
He aggravated this assertion by letting in a tame long-range shot on his league debut against West Bromwich Albion. People didn’t understand what Sir Alex Ferguson saw in the young lad from Atletico Madrid. De Gea could not prove his doubters wrong last season despite some inspiring performances towards the tail-end of the campaign.
A difficult start to United life
In fact, second choice goalkeeper Anders Lindegaard was regarded by many as a more solid and stable option while they criticized Sir Alex for continuing to play the Spaniard ahead of the Dane. De Gea’s uncertain form led to United being linked with several, more seasoned alternatives, including Asmir Begovic of Stoke City.
But with his recent form, one could argue that last season, De Gea was perhaps still adjusting to life in England. It must have been a difficult move for a young man, changing country and lifestyle, whilst being under the spotlight all the while. And more importantly, adjusting and adapting to the physical nature of England’s game takes time. Sir Alex pointed out that even the great Peter Schmeichel took a couple of months to adapt to the unique style of football.
However, after enduring a difficult start at United, the 22 year old is now in the sort of form that has many fans, pundits and journalists tipping him to be Manchester United’s first choice keeper for a long time and eventually Spain’s as well.
He's made some spectacular saves
A major improvement this season has led to the young custodian keeping six successive clean sheets in the Premier League. Overall, De Gea has been more solid this season and there has been a visible improvement in how he has dealt with the physical aspect of the English game as well. He has still made those spectacular saves, something never more apparent than in the first leg of the clash versus the nine-time European champions Real Madrid.
The acrobatic save against an almost sure-shot goal from Fabio Coentrao, resulted in the game only ending at 1-1. He made more spectacular saves in the match dealing effectively with the efforts of Mesut Ozil, Sami Khedira and Coentrao. The goal from Ronaldo was a sheer moment of genius, against which there was nothing De Gea could do. These saves showed experience and De Gea has remarkable amount of experience for such a young age.
He's improved physically
He has also visibly improved his physique having spent some time in the gym which has improved his confidence when claiming crosses by either punching or catching them, something which was proving to be his vulnerability last season.
The £17million that United paid for his services is now looking like money well spent, and he is quickly becoming a fans’ favourite at Old Trafford. The Manchester derby is going to be pivotal for both the sides. For United, a win against city can add some shine to their imminent title victory. A win for the Sky Blues would mean that they can attempt at finishing closer to United in the table, restoring some pride and secure the bragging rights. And for both these clubs, the goalkeepers are going to be influential in shaping the outcome. It will be interesting to see who comes on top, Hart or De Gea.
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