In-form David De Gea embodies Man United's upturn in fortunes
Manchester United goalkeeper David De Gea is coming off yet another game, this time against Liverpool, that demonstrates his growing dominance between the sticks.
Of course, let's not forget that some of those now praising him for his consistently outstanding performances were highly critical of him and suggested that he would never make it as a goalkeeper at Old Trafford.
De Gea has proved his critics wrong to the point that he's become one of the elite keepers in world football. Will he stay at Manchester United and sign a new contract? Or will he go back to Spain, perhaps to play for Real Madrid?
Either way, the future is bright for De Gea, whose development has been anything but straightforward, a career trajectory that gives you even greater appreciation of his recent achievements.
Rewind to the summer of 2009, when an 18-year-old De Gea had just spent his first season as Atletico Madrid's B team goalkeeper. Atletico loans their best young players out and there are two offers for Spain's under-19 goalkeeper, from Queens Park Rangers and Numancia.
Jesus Garcia Pitarch, Atletico's sporting director, blocks the QPR approach and pushes De Gea toward Numancia, newly relegated from the Primera Liga. De Gea turns Numancia down, prompting his club to tell him that unless he changes his mind, he'll be training by himself and not playing with the B team. The youngster duly trains alone. The ill feeling between De Gea's family and the club's then-sporting director will linger until his departure.
A few weeks later, Atletico coach Abel Resino sees De Gea training and asks "What's he doing by himself?" Resino calls him up to train with the first team and sees his talents on a daily basis.
As the 2009-10 season started, De Gea was considered the Rojiblancos' third-choice goalkeeper. That was progress. Only a year earlier he'd been considered to be the second choice B team keeper behind Joel Robles, who is now Everton's reserve keeper.
The stick-thin De Gea would get his first team chance sooner than anticipated. With first choice Sergio Asenjo away with Spain at the Under-20 World Cup, De Gea was named as cover for number two Roberto.
When Roberto was injured after 27 minutes of Atletico's Champions League game in Porto, the Madrileno replaced him and performed admirably before conceding two late goals, the first from Porto's new signing Radamel Falcao.
Atletico were in turmoil in Europe and at home, and Resino would be replaced by Quique Sanchez Flores in October 2009, but not before De Gea made an unforgettable league debut three days after the Porto match. He gave a penalty away to visitors Real Zaragoza, for whom played his good friend Ander Herrera, then saved the spot-kick and his side won 2-1.
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Asenjo, an expensive five million euro signing, returned but continued to make errors. De Gea would be number one by the end of an exceptional season which culminated in Atletico defeating Fulham in the final of the Europa League, with ex-United favourite Diego Forlan scoring twice.
"David was good enough for the top level at 19 and the players had confidence in him," recalls Forlan. "He played when attitudes were changing at Atletico. For years, Atletico were pupas -- losers who lost their nerve. There was negativity in the psyche of the supporters and that fed into the players. We'd get a good away win and then the fans were convinced that we'd lose an easy home game a few days later because that's what Atleti did.
"And you know what? We did lose because some players believed the fatalism. They were used to failure but me, [Sergio] Aguero, Jose Reyes, Simao and De Gea changed the mentality and helped bring success. We finished fourth twice and got the team back in the Champions League for first time since 1996. We won the Europa League, reached the Copa del Rey final."
De Gea was still very much a teenager as Atleti became a club with a winning mentality.
"David was quiet, laid back and liked to spend time on a PlayStation with his mates Sergio Aguero and Maxi Rodriguez," recalls Forlan.
"They invited me to play tennis [not on a computer]. I don't think they knew I played at a good level. When they weren't laughing or arguing with each other, they were hitting the ball really well. Then I had to show the Argentinians why their neighbour Uruguay is better at all sports. David found this funny."
Meanwhile, De Gea continued to hone his craft on the pitch.
"Emilio Alvarez, the goalkeeping coach brought in by Quique, helped develop De Gea and overcome his insecurities," explains Dani Hidalgo, who covered Atletico for Spanish newspaper AS. "Alvarez is highly verbal and motivational, but also great at improving fundamentals."
De Gea moved to Manchester in 2011 but that hasn't dented his popularity among Atleti fans. One bar close to the Vicente Calderon stadium still boasts a Rey David (King David) sticker across the door with his picture.
His success also strengthened Atletico's faith in young goalkeepers and they replaced him with Thibaut Courtois on a three-year loan from Chelsea. Atletico would then do the unthinkable, winning La Liga last season under Diego Simeone's management.
De Gea took time to settle in Manchester and was incredibly homesick but Sir Alex Ferguson stuck by his young keeper and goalkeeping coach Eric Steele pushed him to improve, bettering his English, his diet and his fitness.
Now, at 24, he's considered one of the best goalkeepers in world football and provided more heroics in United's 3-0 win against Liverpool, another match which United won without playing particularly well.
Liverpool had more shots and more shots on target, which meant another busy afternoon for De Gea. United's player of the season last term, he's been the club's best player again in this campaign. That he hasn't signed a new contract to stay beyond the expiration of his current deal in 2016 is unnerving United fans, if not the club who claim they're relaxed about the situation. Few know what De Gea and his agent Jorge Mendes want -- whether to stay on for more money or move back to Spain.
Executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward's relationship with Mendes is a key but until he signs United fans are worried De Gea will join Real Madrid and move back to his hometown. Since a previous column looking at the possibility of a move, Iker Casillas has re-established himself as Madrid's number one. He's the club captain and still enjoys a huge bank of credit at the Bernabeu. At 33, Casillas isn't finished yet.
It's a factor in De Gea's future but so are United, a club who've yet to annoy him like Atleti did, who have stuck with him, signed several Spanish-speaking players and started to improve to the point that Champions League football next season now looks probable.
It's all the more reason for De Gea to stick around and enjoy the very busy ride.
Andy Mitten is a freelance writer and the founder and editor of United We Stand. Follow him on Twitter: @AndyMitten.