x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

David De Gea and Roberto: Two former Atletico teammates face off at Old Trafford

The career paths of two keepers changed on one Champions League night in Portugal. On Wednesday they meet again as Manchester United host Olympiakos, writes Ian Hawkey.

David de Gea has had a difficult current season at Manchester United. Andrew Yates / AFP
David de Gea has had a difficult current season at Manchester United. Andrew Yates / AFP

Abel Resino, the coach of Atletico Madrid, shouted louder. The first time he bellowed at the callow, wispy teenager sitting on the substitutes’ bench, the message had apparently not got through.

“Get yourself ready,” Resino screamed again.

Amid the noise of a raucous Dragao Stadium in Porto, Resino assumed that David de Gea had not heard his instructions. Or, he suddenly worried, perhaps the teenager was suffering from an alarming bout of stage fright.

The circumstances were daunting. De Gea had never played for Atletico’s first team before. Sergio Asenjo, the club’s No 1 keeper, was away with Spain’s Under 20 squad, which meant De Gea was drafted for the trip to Porto in the most glamorous and tough competition in club football, the Uefa Champions League, strictly as an emergency back-up.

Twenty-six minutes into the group-phase match in 2009, Resino’s other senior keeper had got injured, and the rookie was about to be thrown in at the deep end.

De Gea, only 18, conceded two goals against Porto, but also made a series of excellent saves. Suffice to report, from then on, he never looked back.

By the end of that season, De Gea was Atletico’s first choice as they won the Europa League. In 2011, he set an English Premier League transfer-fee record for a goalkeeper when he joined Manchester United for a shade under €25 million (Dh127.7m). De Gea’s lucky break at the Dragao was a key moment in his precocious rise. But there was a loser that night, a man whose career has since followed a trajectory as mazy as De Gea’s has moved steeply upward.

Roberto Jimenez was the luckless, injured keeper at the Dragao. On Wednesday night, representing Olympiakos in the last-16, second leg of the Champions League, he will be on the opposite side of the Old Trafford pitch from his former Atletico teammate.

Roberto may need to be at his best. United must chase down a 2-0 deficit if they are to prevent the Greek champions from pulling off a major surprise.

Roberto turned 28 last month, a few days after signing a four-year contract with Olympiakos, and with it, gaining a professional security that, for half a decade, seemed beyond his reach.

At the weekend, he celebrated the league title, and teammates acknowledged the keeper’s strong contribution to that triumph: 20 clean sheets in 29 league matches.

But Olympiakos fans most treasure Roberto for his remarkable dexterity and alertness in the 1-0 win over Benfica in the Champions League group phase match that squeezed the club into the knock-out stages, and earned their appointment with United.

Roberto put in an epic performance against Benfica, and picked up a man-of-the-match award that carried special emotions.

He once was a Benfica player, and though he had his high moments in his period on loan in Lisbon, he was also subject to some fierce criticism in the Portuguese media when he started there and then when his form dipped again.

He stayed one season, and dropped to third in Benfica’s goalkeeping hierarchy by the summer of 2011, when De Gea was joining United. While the latter was lifting the Premier League trophy last May, Roberto was suffering relegation from the Spanish Primera Liga with Real Zaragoza. He had joined Zaragoza from Atletico, initially on loan in 2010.

After the Benfica season, Zaragoza came back for him, though their financial difficulties meant his transfer was funded under a third-party-ownership arrangement.

Atletico then signed him back when Zaragoza went down, and, with Thibaut Courtois – on loan at Atletico from Chelsea – their favoured keeper, immediately loaned Roberto to Olympiakos.

All this zigzagging around southern Europe was hardly the professional timeline he would have envisioned when he was winning Spain Under 21 caps, and being touted as the next in the long line of excellent Spanish custodians, following the likes of Iker Casillas, Pepe Reina and Victor Valdes.

De Gea is first in the queue now to keep goal for Spain, the world and European champions, once Casillas and Valdes retire.

But he will want an extended run in this season’s Champions League, because, barring an incredible turnaround, United will not be participating in the competition in 2014/15.

De Gea, who made a spectacular save in the 3-0 home loss to Liverpool in the Premier League on Sunday, is not the chief villain of United’s lacklustre campaign. Nor has he been enjoying the hero status of his old clubmate, the much-travelled, now-renascent Roberto, over the last nine months.

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