De Gea reminds United of slim margins for success

Posted by Musa Okwonga

Well, now this is interesting. Manchester United's 2-2 draw against Chelsea on Sunday has left United with an extra game in a draining season and, if they make it through, the prospect of a semifinal against Manchester City in the FA Cup.

-- Rafa: Ferguson snubbed me
-- Tyler: More questions
-- Payne: Honours even

Most notable was that Sir Alex Ferguson blamed the concession of a 2-0 lead on United's tiredness following their midweek loss in the UEFA Champions League to Real Madrid. What he omitted to mention was that his team looked most ailing in central midfield, a topic that has returned to the fore with unerring regularity this season. The difference until now has been that Robin van Persie and his colleagues in United's striking stable have provided sufficient firepower to gloss over this awkward issue, but with the Dutchman in the first subpar spell of his time at United, it is again the most pressing of questions.

Chelsea came back into this match thanks to an exceptional playmaking trio of Oscar, Eden Hazard and Juan Mata, supported by a midfield that was both hard-running and tactically astute. United midfielder Michael Carrick, who provided an excellent assist for the game's opening goal by Javier Hernandez, is as smart with and without the ball as any Premier League player at his position.

However, he needs a partner alongside him who can put in the short, sharp bursts of pace to link with their teammates higher up the field. The man best-suited to that job this season, of the available options, is Tom Cleverley. Yet he was exposed on Sunday, drawn out of position and outrun by the outstanding Ramires, who gave the most damaging possible example of what Manchester United are missing through the middle.

When entering the final straight of a demanding season, this is not a particularly good time to be running out of gas. Manchester City will have watched this with interest, given that they are due to visit Old Trafford again in the Premier League, as are Chelsea. Roberto Mancini has some of the most powerful central midfielders in the division -- step forward, Yaya Toure and James Milner -- and it would be little surprise to see them as a pairing when that critical fixture comes around.

However, before doom and gloom are too readily paired off, Manchester United's fans can remind themselves that they are, after all, still in the competition. They are there despite the fatigue of their first-choice full backs, whom Ferguson singled out as uniquely exhausted, and despite the alarmingly poor form of Antonio Valencia, who had another afternoon he would like to forget -- but which his paymasters will probably not.

Nani, who withdrew early with an injury, is looking like an increasingly important option in these closing stages. Wayne Rooney, though he scored early, also showed the problem with fielding forwards who do not fully attend to their defensive duties.

Perhaps the last word should go to goalkeeper David De Gea, since it was he who made the last major statement on the field. The taciturn Spaniard had been called upon for little else when the final minute of the game arrived, but the stop he then produced with his outstretched right leg on a Juan Mata shot should go on a short list of the season's best saves. By the time this season is done, he will have quite the highlight reel circulating on YouTube.

If his team does proceed, as it should, to a league title this year, then it is De Gea more than many who can be thanked for carrying United over the line in front. As it stands, they have a 12-point lead in the Premier League and have narrowly avoided the psychological blow of losing a second consecutive game from a winning position. Sunday's game, as much as any, was a lesson in how swiftly the most impressive margins can crumble. As the last few matches of this season approach, Manchester United will do well to heed it.

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