De Gea's consistency at Man United shows why other clubs covet him
Two goalkeepers sat in Old Trafford's Sir Bobby Charlton Stand during Manchester United's extra-time win against an impressive Anderlecht side in the Europa League quarterfinal.
David De Gea was on the bench, as has been the norm for a competition, in which Sergio Romero has been the preferred starter. Further back and not far from De Gea's agent Jorge Mendes, who is in Manchester for meetings, was Leicester goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel. He sat between his father, United legend Peter, and Richard Arnold, United's Group Managing Director.
Earlier on Thursday, De Gea was named in the Professional Footballer Association's team of the season, the only United player to make the best XI. He has been its chosen goalkeeper for three consecutive seasons and in four of the last five years. To be judged above the likes of Schmeichel, Hugo Lloris, Petr Cech and Thibaut Courtois is the latest reminder of De Gea's quality.
"David De Gea is the best goalkeeper in the world," said Ander Herrera when I spoke to him recently about his fellow countryman. "He's the best with his feet, the best with his hands. He's the best in the way that he understands football. And despite all the attention and the pressure, he's always so calm. He's always in control, on and off the field."
Asking a friend and fellow countryman for an opinion may not always elicit the most objective answer, but Herrera is convinced and plenty of professionals will back him up.
Should United overcome Celta Vigo in the semifinal, it will be interesting to see if Jose Mourinho goes with his best goalkeeper in the May 24 final, over the trusted and talented Romero. If so, it would be De Gea's second appearance in the showpiece occasions, having won the Europa League in 2010 when his Atletico Madrid side beat Fulham thanks to two goals from Diego Forlan.
"When he came into the first team, nobody in the Atletico first team really knew him," explained Forlan of De Gea's breakthrough in 2008. "I could see that he was really good. He was catching the ball with confidence, he held the ball firm so that no strikers could take a rebound. That can make a big difference and it's especially hard nowadays because the balls are really quick and move a lot.
"Life is more difficult for goalkeepers than any other position, plus there's a demand from fans to see spectacular goals where the ball curls or spins," Forlan continues. "The fans who demand those type of goals don't always realise that a goalkeeper has to try and save such efforts. I was surprised because he was so young, but he quickly won the respect of players like myself and [Sergio] Aguero."
Forlan was one of the people consulted by United as they stepped up their efforts to sign De Gea as a replacement for the retiring Edwin van der Sar.
"Martin Ferguson called me and I gave De Gea a very good review," explains Forlan. "I said that, barring injury, he would be one of the very best. United were diligent in doing a lot of research on him, which is natural because he was going to cost a lot of money."
United also wanted to know about his personality.
"I told Ferguson that he was a great lad from a good family," says Forlan. "I'd seen his family at training and they were pleasant and down to earth people. David was quiet, but you could see that he just loved playing football and training. He was respectful and asked my advice. He listened, which is always a good sign. Added to that, he was playing in a very good team so his confidence grew. Atletico was the perfect club for him at that point."
De Gea's rise was impressive. He'd been on United's radar since being spotted by goalkeeping coach Eric Steele in 2007 when playing for Spain's Under-17s against England. Two years later, he was Atletico's undisputed No. 1.
"It was raining in Hamburg," remembers Forlan. "The pitch was slippy, fast. In the first minutes of the game someone shot the ball and it was going high. It was a difficult ball and David was in a good position to catch it. It would have been easier to touch the ball and send it out for a corner. David jumped really high and caught the ball with both hands. In that moment, from the other side of the pitch, I knew that we were going to be alright with our goalkeeper in the final."
A decade after United spotted him, De Gea ranks alongside Manuel Neuer, who Sir Alex Ferguson tried to sign before De Gea only to be rejected, as well as Courtois and Gianluigi Buffon. But how long can he be kept at Old Trafford?
He's in his sixth season at the club and has been superb for the club. It's in nobody's interest to talk about him leaving, nor for De Gea to say anything, but that won't stop more speculation this summer because Real Madrid want to sign a new goalkeeper.
If De Gea stays for an extended period and maintains the 45-game-per-season average he has managed since signing six years ago for what now seems like a bargain £17 million, he'll be close to 800 appearances by the time he's 37. He could become United's greatest-ever 'keeper but, the greater he is, the stronger those links will be with Real Madrid.
And yet if United can get back into the Champions League and play at the level of Madrid's giants, the temptation to leave won't be quite as alluring. And Mourinho won't have to worry if Romero is the man to move up, if Schmeichel could be a man to sign or if there's another goalkeeper to replace the man who, on individual accolades alone, had been United's best for five years.
Andy Mitten is a freelance writer and the founder and editor of United We Stand. Follow him on Twitter: @AndyMitten.