x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

City v United: The first men in the last line of defence

Countdown to the derby: Richard Jolly examines the importance of Joe Hart and David De Gea to Manchester City and Manchester United respectively.

Manchester City's goalkeeper Joe Hart. Paul Ellis / AFP
Manchester City's goalkeeper Joe Hart. Paul Ellis / AFP

Manchester United's two finest goalkeepers, according to Sir Alex Ferguson, were Peter Schmeichel and Edwin van der Sar.

When the Scot directs his gaze at either penalty area in Monday's Manchester derby, it may be like a trip back in time. There are similarities with the men guarding either net.

David de Gea, like Van der Sar, his predecessor in the United goal, is beanpole thin, with the sort of physique that would invite a shoulder charge from a 1950s forward.

At the other end will stand a blond, brash giant, a goalkeeper with the confidence and charisma to dominate his penalty area.

Joe Hart is not the next Schmeichel - as the great Dane was the supreme goalkeeper in Premier League history by some distance, no one is - but there are common characteristics with a man who lined up for City as well as United.

Hart, too, could have headed to Old Trafford. "I could have bought Joe Hart for £100,000 (Dh591,324) so we all make mistakes," Ferguson revealed in February. "If you look at the England goalkeeper situation for the last 20 years, I would think he's easily the best."

Instead of picking up the fledgling Hart from Shrewsbury Town in 2006, Ferguson spent £18 million when Van der Sar retired last summer.

He chose a 20 year old to replace a man twice his age, making a bold investment in youth.

That mirrored Roberto Mancini's decision the previous summer when he promoted Hart ahead of Shay Given to become City's first-choice goalkeeper.

The experienced Irishman remains arguably the division's outstanding shot-stopper but is reluctant to leave his line.

Hart has greater presence; plenty of managers, Ferguson included, prefer a personality keeper to a more anonymous alternative and Mancini appears to share the Scot's fondness for an assertive last line of defence.

"He can become one of the best in the world," said the City manager. To his peers, he is already the best in the country.

Hart was voted a member of the PFA Team of the Year and shortlisted for the Player of the Year award. He was nominated not so much for the quantity of his contributions - the goalkeeper in a successful side can spend large periods of time as a spectator - as the quality.

An autumnal blip, where a habit of pushing shots into the path of onrushing strikers, appears to have been forgotten.

De Gea, too, has improved after a nervy start. His league debut for United was made memorable for the wrong reasons when Shane Long's tame shot squirmed under his body and in.

He arrived with a reputation for conceding to long-range shots - indeed only two goalkeepers were beaten from outside their box more often in Europe's top five leagues last season - and, when Edin Dzeko scored from distance in the Community Shield, it was an invitation for opponents to try their luck.

Now, however, De Gea has shed that tag. Yet while early-season errors did not cost United, a slump in November and December did: both Carling Cup and Uefa Champions League exits were partly attributable to him and, after he was meekly beaten by Grant Hanley when the defender scored Blackburn Rover's winner at Old Trafford on Ferguson's 70th birthday, he was dropped. A reprieve came when Anders Lindegaard was injured and, apart from a chastening afternoon at Liverpool when United departed the FA Cup, the Spaniard has excelled since.

"It took him time to adjust to the English game but he is playing with confidence now," his manager said.

De Gea is starting to justify Ferguson's faith and the most expensive fee an English club has ever paid for a goalkeeper, but come Monday night United may yet regret the £100,000 deal they did not do six years ago.

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