By Gill Clark
David de Gea could be forgiven for expecting a bruising encounter as Manchester United head to Stoke City on Sunday, yet his biggest challenge could come from his opposite number Asmir Begovic.
The Potters goalkeeper has been in superb form this season, keeping 10 clean sheets in 32 Premier League appearances, a record bettered in the top flight this season only by Joe Hart with 14.
In a Stoke side who have struggled badly and are just three points off the relegation places going into the game against the league leaders, that is an impressive achievement, and it is little wonder that the vultures are circling.
As exclusively revealed by Goal.com in February, United have been closely monitoring Begovic, who they want to bring in to compete with De Gea for the No.1 jersey at Old Trafford, with Anders Lindegaard set to make way.
However, De Gea's recent form suggests that, if Begovic does arrive, he may struggle, like Lindegaard, to usurp the Spaniard from the first team.
The 22-year-old has finally established himself as the undisputed No.1 at Old Trafford, despite an iffy start to the season which saw him dropped after a mistake in United's 3-2 win against Fulham.
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De Gea has shrugged that disappointment off, however, and gone on to make 23 Premier League appearances this season, conceding just 22 goals and with nine clean sheets, despite a defence which has been frequently disrupted with injuries to Nemanja Vidic, Jonny Evans, Rafael, Chris Smalling and Phil Jones.
It has been the same story in the cups too, a vital last-minute save from Juan Mata allowing United to cling onto an FA Cup replay against Chelsea while a mature performance in the Santiago Bernabeu saw him make outstanding stops from Fabio Coentrao and Sami Khedira to help his side to a 1-1 draw in the Champions League.
His development from the skinny 20-year-old who arrived in Manchester in 2011 charged with the uneviable task of replacing Edwin van der Sar, a man twice his age with a bulging trophy cabinet and a mere 130 international caps to his name, is clear to see.
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Perhaps unsurprisingly, his first few steps in English football were wobbly. A speculative shot from Edin Dzeko in the Community Shield flew underneath the new man and just a week later against West Brom a Shane Long effort crept through his hands and into the net.
His inexperience, slender frame and a weakness with high balls were targeted by opposition, particularly at set-pieces, and led to an air of uncertainty in the United defence that had been kept calm for so long by Van der Sar.
Even Sir Alex Ferguson accepted as much, taking him out of the firing line and out of the team when the notoriously direct Bolton visited Old Trafford in January 2012.
Yet his replacement that day and the man with whom he has battled to be No.1, Lindegaard, has failed to fully earn the manager's trust. The Dane is a self-confident, steady presence but, like the Spaniard, has also been guilty of some high-profile errors.
A sloppy showing as United struggled to a 4-3 win at Reading in December, conceding three goals in the first 23 minutes, frustrated the fans and, while injury has played a part, Lindegaard has scraped just eight Premier League games this season, conceding a fairly unimpressive 11 goals. He has not played since the FA Cup victory over West Ham in January and, at 28, he may sense it is time to move on.
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His kicking continues to be a huge asset, too, his laser-like distribution suiting United's love of a quick counterattack perfectly, while his unorthodox saves with his feet, which often drew criticism initially, are now earning applause.
It was little surprise then to see him called up to the Spain squad with Pepe Reina and Victor Valdes for the World Cup qualifiers against Finland and France, little surprise either to see reports that Barcelona are lurking, keen to find a replacement for Valdes. It led De Gea to insist: "It is always nice to be linked with Barcelona but I am happy in Manchester with one of the best clubs in the world."
When it comes to replacements, Stoke, of course, already appear to be one step ahead of the game, having signed young Englishman Jack Butland in January.
Relegation for Tony Pulis's men this season would surely see Begovic leave the Britannia Stadium and, at 25 he would bring experience to a United back line that is looking increasingly youthful with Rafael, Smalling, Jones and Alexander Buttner fighting to become regulars.
Indeed, with an impressive showing on Sunday there would be little doubt that Begovic's name will crop up in conversation when Pulis shares a glass of wine with Sir Alex at full-time on Sunday - yet if De Gea's improvement continues at its current rate, he may just be buying himself a headache.
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