For Man United’s David De Gea, facing Chelsea will always bring back mixed memories.
After all, Big Dave has rarely been on the winning side whenever United have faced the Blues in recent years, but he has been part of some classic encounters nonetheless.
Perhaps the most enthralling of those is the famous 3-3 that was played out at Stamford Bridge back in 2012, when – in typical Fergie-era style – United produced a stirring fightback from three goals down to earn a point against Andre Villas-Boas’ ambitious side.
But as brilliant as that was, the match is perhaps best remembered as the very moment De Gea’s United career took a turn for the better.
You see, prior to that match, the Spaniard had somewhat struggled at Old Trafford.
Signed for a then-record fee for a goalkeeper from Atletico Madrid in the summer of 2011, he faced the daunting prospect of replacing the recently retired Edwin van der Sar.
He came to the club with plenty of potential, having helped Atleti secure the Europa League title the season before, but his first few games in England were littered with howlers, and fans and pundits quickly started to question his place as United’s first-choice keeper.
Coming of age
Described as weak, lazy and seemingly lacking in confidence, De Gea often looked like a mistake waiting to happen in those early days.
Speaking about the goalies initial struggles at the club, Eric Steele, United’s goalkeeping coach at the time, said: “There were lifestyle issues. He’d sleep two or three times a day. He’d have his main meal late at night. He’d eat too many tacos.
“We pushed protein drinks on him straight after training. We physically made him drink. We had him in the gym a lot. He hated it. They don’t do the gym in Spain as much. We needed to build his core strength.”
In fact, De Gea’s poor performances in his first few months with the side meant he began 2012 on the bench, behind Anders Lindegaard in the pecking order.
But an injury for the Dane in early February meant the castaway keeper was back in the starting line-up for their upcoming clash with Chelsea.
It was clear from the opening exchanges of the match that Chelsea would enjoy the lions-share of the game’s attacking play.
The Blues front trio of Daniel Sturridge, Fernando Torres and Juan Mata were all too much for United’s defence, and pretty soon, own-goals from Johnny Evans and Rio Ferdinand and a wonder-strike from Mata meant United were 3-0 down early into the second-half.
Of course, the United of old still had that never-say-die attitude, and two penalties inside 10 minutes were converted by Wayne Rooney, before Javier Hernandez slipped home the equaliser six minutes from time.
But the real drama came at the very end, when the Blues threatened to nick a winner in the dying moments.
With a free-kick on the edge of the area, Mata – who was largely considered the best player in the league at the time – looked poised to earn the Blues all three points.
But as his inch-perfect free-kick sailed into the top corner, De Gea dived at full-stretch to keep the ball out of the net with just the tips of his finger.
Not only did De Gea’s save earn United a valuable point away from home, but it helped De Gea show the Premier League what he was capable of and it gave him that much-needed confidence boast.
From there, he went on to play in United’s final 19 games of the season, keeping eight clean sheets in the process.
A few years later, in an interview with Sky Sports, De Gea said the save proved to be the turning point that saved his United career.
“It was probably a point where everything changed,” he said. “From this game on, I played better and better and better.”
Nowadays, few would argue that De Gea is one of the best goalkeepers in the world.
True, his stock has slipped just a little bit recently, following his disastrous run out for Spain at the World Cup and a number of mistakes for his club.
But on his day, few can match the United No.1’s reflexes, agility, and shot-stopping ability, and in recent years, De Gea has been the glue that’s held the club together in the difficult post-Fergie days.