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Can Spain afford to show David De Gea the patience he received early at Man United?

David De Gea has been here before. The Manchester United and Spain goalkeeper is on the receiving end of some serious flak after his below-par performances for his country in Russia. Spain conceded two goals on the way to winning the World Cup in 2010. They've conceded five in their group stage so far, with De Gea under fire for not making a single save until the third game after Morocco had drawn level. Every shot on target against Spain had gone in.

While De Gea's stock among United fans has been consistently high for more than six years, in Spain it's much lower. Debates centre around whether he should be dropped and memes mock him in his home country. One shows a frog trying to catch an insect that is right in front of it -- and missing.

It's his worst moment since his early days in England, when his slight frame was targeted by opposing attackers, when United's players told Sir Alex Ferguson that they needed more consistency and noise from their keeper, where they felt the team was badly diminished after the departure of Edwin van der Saar. They didn't like goalkeepers being rotated, as initially happened when De Gea arrived.

Ferguson only really lost his temper with De Gea once, following a game against bottom-of-the-table Blackburn Rovers at Old Trafford, where the Spaniard was at fault for their late winner. Even a draw would have meant United won the league in 2011-12, but football doesn't work like that. An angry Ferguson told De Gea that while he was under fire for playing him, he was going to continue to play him every single week so that he got used to this pressure at an early age.

When the pressure mounted on De Gea, and Ferguson for keeping faith with him, his manager told him that he had bought him because he thought he was going to be the best goalkeeper in the world, and that he still believed he would be. That was some belief in a man even patient United fans were seriously doubting. But that's what great managers do, they make their own minds up and have courage in their convictions.

De Gea's turning point came five weeks later at Chelsea, where he started the game dreadfully but finished it as the best player on the pitch. He was encouraged by Ferguson's words, ate better and worked harder as he built himself up in the gym and was encouraged to a) speak during training and games, and b) speak in English by his teammates. Those actions from Ferguson and the work of his goalkeeping coach Eric Steele that winter mean that De Gea still has a bedrock of love for United, even though he rarely says it -- in part because he rarely says anything of interest.

Ferguson stuck by his new goalkeeper and was vindicated in doing so: Manchester United have not made a better signing this decade.

Will Spain coach Fernando Hierro do the same? Four games into being Spain boss and with the stakes higher, can he afford to?

De Gea is hugely talented. He's popular among teammates and trusted by them too. They'll stick by him, but he'll get hammered by the media and fans if he makes mistakes. It takes a strong manager to resist such pressure and plenty of big-name managers of national sides have buckled beneath it.

David De Gea had a difficult World Cup for Spain but remains first choice.
David De Gea struggled initially with Manchester United before becoming one of the best goalkeepers in the world.

Several factors go against De Gea. One, he's still in the shadow of Iker Casillas, the man regarded as Spain's greatest-ever goalkeeper. Because Casillas didn't play outside of Iberia, it's not always appreciated how popular he was in Spain. He was the captain of Real Madrid and Spain, a man who made his debut for Madrid as a teenager and stayed there. Madrid bring few players right through their ranks to be at the absolute top level. Casillas cycled to training when he broke into Madrid's first team and was still considered approachable when he was a captain of the world champions. He's Spanish royalty without the crown.

De Gea, whose style couldn't be more different from his predecessor, bided his time to wait for Casillas to fade and now he's No. 1, but he's never had a chance to build up that vast bank of credit that Casillas had.

Nor has De Gea ever built up a strong-enough following in the media or even among Spaniards. He doesn't play for Real Madrid or Barcelona. In Spain, everyone else is a long way off compared with  those two giants.

Three, some of the criticism is justified. This writer asked two Spanish amateur teams for their opinions. The gist was that they know he's a good goalkeeper, but that he isn't right now.

"He used to add to the team, now he's weakening it," was one notable comment. "He should be changed."

Yet there was also criticism for the two central defenders in front of him, Sergio Ramos and Gerard Pique.

De Gea's mistakes have not been one-offs. He simply hasn't replicated his form for his club with his country. Ivan Perisic's goal for Croatia in Euro 2016 didn't show De Gea in the best light, and after an error in a friendly against Switzerland a month ago, he said: "Rather today than in Russia." Then he made several mistakes in Russia.

"I haven't killed anyone," said the former Atletico Madrid goalkeeper after a blunder for the second goal in Spain's epic 3-3 draw against Portugal.

No, but don't expect the debate to go away, especially as he also committed an error for Spain against Argentina in March.

It's not like it's going well for his contemporaries, either. Manuel Neuer, the usual rival for De Gea's status as football's finest goalkeeper, hasn't convinced in Russia either. At least De Gea should get more chances, starting with Saturday's round-of-16 game against Russia in Moscow. That's if he's not dropped for Athletic Bilbao's talented young keeper Kepa or the veteran Pepe Reina.

United fans aren't too concerned. Taking the wind out of his sails means Real Madrid are less likely to want him. They'll back him when he returns to Manchester and support him as they've always done at matches, even in his darkest moments of the winter of 2011-12.

Andy Mitten is a freelance writer and the founder and editor of United We Stand. Follow him on Twitter: @AndyMitten.


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