SANTA CLARA, CALIFORNIA // Several Real Madrid players surrounded Manchester United goalkeeper David de Gea at the end of pre-season friendly decided by a penalty-shoot that bordered on the farcical. United won 2-1 on penalties, with only three of the 10 converted after the game finished 1-1 at the end of 90 minutes in the punishing Californian sun.
Had De Gea’s manager Jose Mourinho not spoken about his goalkeeper the day before the game, which attracted a crowd of 65,109, United fans could have been alarmed at seeing him surrounded by his friends who play for the Spanish, European and world champions. Madrid have wanted De Gea for three years and while he has never pushed for a return, nor has he hidden his desire to those close to him.
Yet after Mourinho’s well-timed words, De Gea, who has all but stopped speaking to the media, could relax: “I can guarantee that he’s not going this season,” the Portuguese said. “And my feeling is that it will be very difficult for him to go. It will be very difficult for him to go because he’s a very honest boy, very straight. I see him really happy and focused and working better than ever, so for me 100 per cent he stays with us.”
That news was welcomed by United fans who, not for the first time, feared that they might lose their keeper back to the city where he grew up and where his partner, friends and family live.
De Gea came on at half time in Santa Clara, replacing Sergio Romero, with United leading 1-0 through a Jesse Lingard goal. De Gea conceded a second-half penalty, duly dispatched by Casemiro, but then saved two in the shoot-out from Mateo Kovacic and Oscar.
United do not want to keep any player against their will, but it was Real Madrid who cooled on De Gea this time. In the days following their second Uefa Champions League success in three years in May, there was a push from within Madrid’s dressing room to keep the popular goalkeeper Keylor Navas.
Madrid executives were also content with the idea of keeping Navas, for they felt that AC Milan’s teenage goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma, someone Madrid had watched closely, would not be committing long term to the San Siro club. Donnarumma hesitated before signing to stay in Italy, though Milan fans were rocked that he had even considered leaving.
Navas is excellent, but he is not in De Gea's class. The Costa Rican played through injury last season which did not help his form or confidence and for a time he was whistled at the Bernabeu. But, like his team, he finished the season strongly.
United would not have let De Gea go cheaply, while Madrid are raising funds to complete their expected signing of Monaco striker Kylian Mbappe who is likely to attract a world-record transfer fee.
De Gea, 26, has entered his seventh season at a club where he was named player of the year three seasons in succession.
The Madrileno is one of seven Spanish speakers in the dressing room and is content playing for what he believes to be an improving United side.
“We have excellent goalkeepers at this club,” Antonio Valencia told The National. “David is now one of the most experienced players at the club, he’s the No 1 for Spain and he’s long been the established at United. We’re very happy having him in the team and hope he’ll stay for a long time.”
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De Gea has played 269 games for United, three more than the legendary goalkeeper he replaced, Edwin van der Sar. He will likely pass Cristiano Ronaldo’s 292 games for the club next season and he has been one of the few ultra consistent players in a side where too few of the outfield players reach the levels every week to seriously challenge for league title.
Alex Ferguson claimed that he needed eight top-level performances from his team at any one time. United have been getting the required level for five or six players most weeks, with Anthony Martial among the more frustrating to see.
The Frenchman, who had failed to shine on the pre-season tour of North America, was much improved against a Madrid side who showcased some of their excellent youngsters, beating players to set up Lingard’s opener.
“We want more consistency in his talent,” Mourinho said. “Today was positive for him, that’s why I left him for 90 minutes on the pitch. He was enjoying himself and trying things. It’s important to try things in these friendly matches so it’s good for Anthony and his confidence.
“He’s a young player who still has time to learn, still time to improve, still time to develop, and it's also his personality. I can say he is training better than before, he’s working harder than before. It’s a question to bring his talent more in a consistent way.”
United flew to Washington DC for their next friendly against Barcelona on Tuesday, Madrid will travel south where they will play Manchester City. De Gea, to the relief of every United fan, will not be going with them.