LONDON — Manchester United do not tend to play their first-choice goalkeeper in the FA Cup. After David De Gea‘s performance against Chelsea at Wembley, the jury is now out on whether they did so in this FA Cup semifinal.
De Gea made his first appearance in the competition since the 2018 final, a 1-0 defeat to Chelsea in which Eden Hazard scored the only goal of a drab game. This latest meeting of two clubs with a combined 20 FA Cups followed a similarly meandering pattern until a prolonged first-half stoppage-time period following a head injury sustained by United’s Eric Bailly.
The defender was stretchered off, and, with his side having switched from three centre-backs to 4-3-3, Chelsea struck in the 11th added minute, Willian released Cesar Azpilicueta down the right, and the Chelsea captain found Olivier Giroud with a driven cross that the striker met with a deft near-post flick. De Gea had only a moment to react but could only slow the shot as he fell backward, allowing the ball to dribble over the line.
If there was any doubt the goalkeeper had already become the fall guy, he made sure with a dreadful error moments into the second period. Brandon Williams passed the ball straight to Mason Mount, who charged infield before firing a speculative, 20-yard drive that possessed only minimal swerve. De Gea, though, was slow reacting to his left, and the shot went in off his fingertips with embarrassing ease.
United were second-best all over the pitch throughout this game and may well have lost regardless, but De Gea helped give Chelsea the initiative and, in doing so, turned scrutiny upon himself at the end of a week that began with him reaching 400 appearances for the Old Trafford club.
Between 2013 and 2018, De Gea was named in the PFA Premier League Team of the Year five times and won United’s Players’ Player of the Year award three times. In the midst of those awards, he almost joined Real Madrid in 2015, only for a now-infamous broken fax machine to scupper the deal.
United breathed a huge sigh of relief, perhaps a sense that lingered when he was handed a £375,000-a-week contract two years ago, running to 2023. De Gea should be in his prime, and time remains on his side to prove he can recapture his old form, but there have been many times this season — before Sunday’s howler — that suggest the rot has set in.
Mistakes against Watford, Everton, Tottenham and Bournemouth have continued a decline that began some time ago. Playing him against Chelsea was designed to add stability amid a formation change, but instead cost United a place in the final.
Back-up Sergio Romero faced Wolves twice, Tranmere, Derby and Norwich earlier in the competition and conceded one goal; indeed, the…