MANCHESTER, England (AP) – It’s awards season in English soccer, typically a time to hail David de Gea’s contribution at Manchester United.
Not this year.
There was no chance of the Spain international making it into the Premier League’s team of the year for the sixth time in seven seasons when it was announced last week.
He can also forget about being named Manchester United’s player of the year for the fifth time in six seasons, despite there being a dearth of alternatives.
Indeed, De Gea probably wants this season to be over already.
A hat trick of mistakes in three of United’s biggest games of the season over the last two weeks have crowned arguably the worst year of the 28-year-old Spaniard’s career.
No longer is he being talked about as the best goalkeeper in the world. In fact, there’s an argument to say he shouldn’t be the No. 1 ‘keeper at United for its final two games of the season.
Not that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is listening to the critics.
“I don’t have any worries about him,” the United manager said after De Gea’s latest error, when he spilled a long-range shot to allow Chelsea to equalize in a 1-1 draw at Old Trafford on Sunday.
It was a mistake that could have huge ramifications, too, ending United’s realistic chances of qualifying for next season’s Champions League.
Naturally, De Gea retained the backing of his teammates.
“He’s been the best player at the club for seven, eight years consistently,” United striker Romelu Lukaku said. “I don’t think we should discredit him and say all of a sudden he’s a bad goalkeeper.”
De Gea has been peerless in the Premier League for some time. Many will point to his display in United’s 1-0 win at Tottenham in January, when he was in the right place at the right time and made 11 saves – the most he’s ever made in a single Premier League game.
Yet, it is the mistakes that will more likely be remembered in a season when his halo slipped.
His year to forget started at the World Cup in Russia, when De Gea allowed a shot from Cristiano Ronaldo to ricochet off his hand and bobble over the goal line. He later bemoaned the lack of support from the Spanish public “in a difficult moment in my life” and said “I haven’t killed anyone.”
Even before the World Cup, he had let a shot from Switzerland defender Stephan Lichtsteiner creep under his arms, leading to a goal in a warm-up game.
The Spanish jeers returned two weeks ago when he allowed a tame shot from Lionel Messi go underneath his body and into the net in a Champions League match at the Camp Nou. The mistake was shown on the stadium’s big screen just before De Gea came out for the second half, and Barcelona fans bowed to him, mockingly, and chanted his name as he took his position in goal for the restart.
A week later, he failed to keep out a shot that went straight at him from Leroy Sane, conceding a goal that clinched Manchester City’s 2-0 win in the derby. Then came the mistake against Chelsea.
Earlier this season, he fumbled a header from Arsenal defender Shkodran Mustafi into his own net in a 2-2 draw in the Premier League.
A few theories have been put forward for his dip in form, ranging from a simple lack of confidence to issues with his concentration amid negotiations with United over a new deal. He only has one year left on his contract and continues to be linked with a move to Real Madrid.
United has a perfectly adequate replacement in Sergio Romero. The Argentina goalkeeper rarely fails to impress when he stands in for De Gea in cup competitions and must be the most highly-qualified understudy in English soccer.
Is it time for a change ahead of United’s final two games, against Huddersfield and Cardiff? It is another big call for Solskjaer, at a time when his position at Old Trafford is starting to be questioned.
De Gea has already answered his critics in England. After some errors – particularly aerially – in the first half of his debut season at United in 2011-12, he was dropped by Alex Ferguson and accused by some pundits of being too slight for the rough and tumble of the Premier League.
He was back in the team within a few weeks and has hardly looked back.
Can De Gea bounce back again?
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Steve Douglas is at www.twitter.com/sdouglas80