A further indicator of Manchester United’s progression in 2016-17 is that David de Gea is unlikely to win the club’s player of the year award this season. The Spaniard has deservedly won the Sir Matt Busby trophy in each of the past three seasons. He’s done little wrong this term, but with United raising their game and having a more attacking emphasis, there’s been less focus on De Gea. Though there are still more than two months of the season remaining, Zlatan Ibrahimovic is almost certain to grab that honour, with notable mentions for Antonio Valencia, plus De Gea’s compatriots Juan Mata and Ander Herrera.
De Gea is United’s number one and fans hope that will be the case for the next decade, winning the trophies his talent deserves and surpassing Alex Stepney as the United goalkeeper with the most appearances for the club. They hope that his affection for United, Manchester and United fans continues to grow. He absolutely loves the fans, singing “something’s good” — Spanish football fans seldom adapt pop songs with such effect.
De Gea also has an able deputy. Sergio Romero, who turned 30 last week, is the 81-cap Argentine goalkeeper who has played nine times for United this season, only one less than his 10 appearances in the whole of last season. United have won all nine games that the former Racing Club, Monaco, Sampdoria and AZ Alkmaar keeper has started; in the six games Romero has started in the Europa League, he hasn’t conceded a single goal while United have scored 11.
Romero has been a permanent fixture on the bench in league games, always ready and waiting just in case De Gea picks up an injury, always driving to training after slipping his substantial 1.92 metre frame into a tiny Fiat car of the type seldom associated with a top-flight footballer.
A client of the agent Mino Raiola along with Paul Pogba, Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Romero was signed by Louis van Gaal in 2015 on a free transfer with a three-year contract, which could easily be extended. His family are settled in Manchester. His glamorous wife speaks English. The couple were together after Sunday’s EFL victory at Wembley, a game Romero could enjoy from the bench after playing in United’s three previous matches against Saint-Etienne at home, Blackburn Rovers and Saint-Etienne away. That allowed David de Gea to get some rest: he didn’t even make the short trip to Ewood Park.
I spoke to Romero after the win in France.
“We’re working hard, we’re playing well,” he said. “We’re going on long runs of not losing games. Personally, it’s important that I play and that I’m ready to play, both for Manchester United and the Argentinian national team. I need to be playing to keep my place for Argentina and I was very happy with how things went this week by playing three games and winning both games. To play well shows that I have the right level to play for United.
“We have a strong squad here and we need more than 11 players. Everyone is playing their part and I’ve worked hard and stayed positive and feel part of this group. I train every week as if I am going to play at the weekend. I have to be ready.”
Romero is unlikely to play in United’s biggest matches though it would take much to intimidate the man who has played in a World Cup final and who plays for Argentina in the white-hot stadiums of South America, where fans chant outside the team hotel the night before games, altitude can affect performances and everyone wants Argentina to lose.
“I’d played in Saint-Etienne with Monaco so I knew what it would be like,” Romero explained. “It’s one of the best atmospheres in France — in Europe even. The people have so much love for their team. It was the same at Blackburn from the United fans. I felt the emotion and the energy from the United fans behind the goal. There were thousands of them, seven or eight thousand I think, all singing. It was like a wall of noise behind me and that’s great for a goalkeeper to feel and for the team, too.
“It reminds me a lot of the fans in Argentina but while I like the tunes, I don’t really understand the songs that they are singing in England. My English is at a basic level at the moment. I’m much better than I was and understand more, but I still find it difficult to speak.”
“Argentina produces very good goalkeepers and Romero’s the best,” explained Diego Forlan, who has played against him several times. “He’s big, vocal, good on crosses and gets down quickly. He can play with his feet, too, which you have to do playing for Argentina to get the ball quickly to their players.
“But Argentina needs him to be playing more. It’s easy to be on the bench when you’re younger, harder as you get older and ideally he needs to be a number one somewhere.”
Being the number one for FIFA’s top-ranked nation and number two for the sixth-best England side this season isn’t conventional, but Romero doesn’t appear too concerned as he faces a big month in March.
Given his record of playing in the FA Cup and Europa League matches, it’s not unreasonable for Romero to expect to play twice against Rostov and maybe even against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge, though it’s likely that Mourinho will make use of both goalkeepers. Romero also has two key qualifiers: one for Argentina at home to South American champions Chile, with Claudio Bravo in net on March 24 and then at altitude in Bolivia on March 29.
For club or country, whether in Rosario or Russia, Romero is ready.
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