A Manchester Derby is enough to shred the nerves when there’s little but bragging rights up for grabs. With a Premier League title on the line, it’s going to be a thousand times worse. Fine margins are likely to decide the outcome and quite possibly, whether it’s blue or red ribbons getting tied to the trophy at some point in the next couple of weeks.
The goalkeepers of both sides endured vastly differing paths to this titanic tussle. How they handle the scrutiny will go a long way to deciding the outcome of the game. Back in October, David De Gea earned the dubious accolade of becoming the first goalkeeper since 1926 to concede six goals in a single Manchester Derby. Both he and his team-mates have come a long way since that low ebb. On the other hand, a City team that looked destined to romp their way to their first top flight title since 1968 found it’s rarely that easy. We’re set for arguably the biggest derby since the fixture began 131 years ago.
David De Gea has had an eventful season. I said all along that there was something missing. He still lacked experience and that really showed early on. What has surprised me is how well he has come on, especially since Manchester United’s Champions League exit. He’s playing his best football at the right time of the season, but this is the biggest test he has faced this year. In many ways, he’s been United’s best player over the last few months, certainly in terms of consistency. It’s been a real pleasure to seem him grow into the role and there’s more to come from him.
Joe Hart’s ascent to the Manchester City first team has been the polar opposite to De Gea. He’s been pretty much excellent from day one and he continues to get better and better. The one thing that stood out for me earlier in the season was the maturity he played with. It’s rare you see it to that level in a 25 year old. Every time I look at him, he exudes confidence. That’s remarkable considering it’s really only his second full season with City.
How each of them handles the pressure is going to have a big bearing on how the derby goes. Given the consistency of Hart and the troubles De Gea had in the first few months of the season, it’s going to be more of an issue for the United keeper. He’s come back into form, but I feel it’s going to be a bigger factor for him. As good as he’s been, he’s only ever one mistake away from the media and the critics jumping down his throat once again. To put it into context, because of how good he has been, if Joe Hart was to make one big, high profile mistake in a game like this, people will still consider him, if not the best, then one of the best goalkeepers in the Premier League. He’s got a level of comfort that De Gea doesn’t and that has to have an effect.
Having said that, I’ve spoken to several people who worked with and watched De Gea coming up through the ranks in Spain and they repeatedly said he’s a player who doesn’t let big games and big situations get to him. He’s very balanced and he stays on an even keel. Playing with Manchester United in a game like this is going to test that to the maximum.
As a game, it’s a very tough call. Sir Alex Ferguson has been in similar situations so many times, you just get the feeling they’ll get the draw they need. My prediction is for a score draw.